Word Lens + Google Goggles = A useful augmented reality app

Earlier this year, Google gave us its Goggles app, which used an Android phone’s camera to snap a photo of text, send it to Google’s remote servers and send back a translation of the text in a chosen language.

The idea was tantalizing enough, but the service depended on finicky data networks and, when those networks were working, could take 20 seconds or so to send back a translation. It was useful enough for translations that were instant, but it was hardly real-time, and almost certainly not the ideal service Google has in mind.

Now a startup called Quest Visual has come out of nowhere to one-up Google with an iPhone app called Word Lens. Unlike Goggles, it’s readily available for iPhones. And no data needs to be sent to a remote server. You can use an iPhone in Airplane Mode and it still works, or at least the free trial version does.

That free trial is itself ingeniously designed. It doesn’t translate words from one language to another but it does reverse their order. Word Lens has some features that are less attractive than Google Goggles’ translation: It’s only available for translating Spanish to English and English to Spanish, and each option costs $4.99. Google offers more languages, and all translations are free. Also, Word Lens’ translations often change if you don’t hold your hand still enough.

One can’t help think that the stronger features from both apps would make for an ideal instant translation service, provided Word Lens’ technology could be integrated into Google’s own.

Language has a genome, and Google is mapping it.

ISRAEL/So many books, so little time. Nobody will ever be able to read them all, to distill their wisdom into an aggregate pool of knowledge that can be accessed at a moment’s notice.

But that’s not stopping Google from trying. The company is making available a new feature in Google Labs called Books Ngram Viewer that scans millions of books from 1600 to the present in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and – perhaps most ambitiously – Chinese.

A word of warning: If you are at all a word geek, Ngram can be a bit of a time vortex. I was quickly lost in the task of investigating the decline of outmoded terms (“oriental”) and the rise of new ones (“hipster”), the disappearance and re-emergence of others (“geek”), the comparison of common words (“he” vs. “she” and “I” vs. “you”). For much deeper analysis of what can be mined from Ngram, the Guardian has a good overview.

The world wants cheap but stylish phones. Can Android deliver both?

KOREA/Cheap and stylish are more likely to be antonyms when describing mobile phones. But the global market will reward a smartphone that can deliver on both fronts, a goal that Android phones seem best suited to reaching.

That is one conclusion to be drawn from a survey from Nielsen on mobile phone usage by 15-24 year olds around the world. The survey had some interesting insights, such as Italy’s position as the market with the highest percentage of young people owning a smartphone (47%). The U.S. was the only major market surveyed where smartphone owners were more likely to be female (55%) than male (45%).

Only one in six smartphones owned by people in the age group surveyed were purchased by parents, so the results can help shed light on what features appeal the most to consumers under 25. For the most part, those features varied by country.

iTunes apps as holiday gifts? Maybe not this year.

Apple has sold some 8 million iPads since the tablet went on sale in April and, by some estimates, more than 100 million iPhones and iPod Touches to date. That should make iOS apps a satisfying holiday gift for many people, and some people are already offering their suggestions.

But this may not be the right year for apps as stocking stuffers, for two reasons. First, Apple isn’t really making it so easy. As Bob Tedeschi points out in the New York Times, Apple seems to go out of its way to make it difficult for gift givers to choose which apps to give to their loved ones. (Imagine if thought this way.)

Apple does not allow companies to sell iTunes gift cards that are designated for specific apps. But, the iTunes App Store lets shoppers “Gift This App,” wrapping the present in a not-so-lovely e-mail or a printed notification that includes the app’s icon and a redemption code. (Next to the “Buy App” button is a downward-facing arrow. Click and hold that arrow, and you will find the “Gift This App” link.)

Facebook is worth $52 billion, and that’s not a good thing.

Reuters: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reacts after unveiling a new messaging system in San Francisco

Reuters: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reacts after unveiling a new messaging system in San Francisco

Another week, another surge in Facebook’s putative valuation.

Facebook is now worth $52.1 billion, according to, up from $50 billion two weeks ago when someone bought a large chunk of its shares on SecondMarket, an online exchange for privately held stocks.

At $52 billion, Facebook is worth more than eBay, Time Warner and News Corp. It’s worth two Yahoos, and worth nearly a third of Google’s $191 billion valuation. Which may not seem unrealistic, until you recall that Google’s revenue will top $20 billion this year, or ten times Facebook’s estimate.

Five things I learned from the genius of Google’s Zeitgeist

The word Zeitgeist is defined as “the spirit of the age.” But the German term was itself a translation by Romanticists of the Latin phrase “genius saeculi.” Those Romanticists didn’t think of “genius” in its modern meaning of an extraordinary mind, but rather its etymological roots of a guardian spirit that watches over people from their birth.

I delve into the etymology of Zeitgeist because it casts an interesting light on the choice by Google to describe its annual summary of search trends, especially when you consider the company’s thoughts on artificial intelligence. Google’s search engine is hardly a guardian spirit, but if it doesn’t exactly watch over our online lives, it does watch them carefully enough – remembering data points it collects in each search and distilling them into interesting trends.

Some of the general trends Google’s Zeitgeist for 2010 discovered are interesting, if hardly profound. Here are a few insights gleaned from all the searches done through Google search engines in the last year.

Google’s not-so-subtle jab at Microsoft Exchange

When Gmail goes down, it doesn’t just make news, it makes people angry. Small businesses running their email on Google’s servers complain publicly. People even talk about suing Google.

Google’s response is usually along these lines: When companies manage email on their own servers, those servers routinely go down. People get upset, sure. But it doesn’t make news. And nobody starts looking for a class-action attorney.

Apparently, that attitude of Google’s isn’t just a defensive PR spin. It’s an actual strategy. Google is adding a feature to the cloud-security technology it obtained when it bought Postini in 2007. Google is calling it Message Continuity, and it’s designed to let companies have access to emails, even when a company’s servers go down.

How PayPal fumbled in the Wikileaks controversy

A unique feature of the web is that it was designed by idealists and capitalists alike. A hacker sensibility fights for an open, democratic structure, while profit-minded businesses helped shape it into a thriving industry. The more successful companies, like Google and Facebook, understand both ethics equally.

But idealism and commerce often clash as well, and woe to the company that is caught in the crossfire. This week, PayPal is such a company. The eBay online-payments subsidiary suspended the account that Wikileaks used to handle donations, citing a violation of terms that prohibit “activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.”

The business logic seemed clear enough: Avoid the wrath of the U.S. State Department and steer the company away from the Wikileaks controversy. But it quickly backfired. Not everyone agreed Wikileaks was engaging in illegal activity, and many hackers and other idealists not only boycotted PayPal, they hit the company with denial of services attacks.

In Google-Groupon talks, size matters

“Think small and act small, and we’ll get bigger. Think big and act big, and we’ll get smaller.”

I came across this quote recently from Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines and my namesake (but no relation). I thought of it again this weekend when reports emerged that e-coupon star Groupon had rebuffed Google’s generous $6 billion bid for an acquisition.

In the business of building the web, small companies dream of staying private, suckling the ample teats of venture capital, until a successful IPO makes everyone rich. Big companies have a ton of cash and use it to buy small companies, which then get lost inside the big company’s culture and never really realize their potential.

Why Web Giants would benefit from a ‘do not track’ policy

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a report recommending that browsers include a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would allow people to surf the web without sites collecting and sharing data about their activities. In the same way that the “Do Not Call” list hampered that ability of some (but alas, not all) telemarketers to interrupt our dinners with unwanted calls, the idea sounds like bad news for web sites that target ads based on such data.

But in the end, such a move could be just what web giants like Google and Facebook need to get their users to opt in to sharing data, rather than opting out.

Opting out of telemarketing calls is a fairly black and white decision. You either hate them or you don’t mind them. But online privacy is a much murkier affair. On the one hand, behavioral data can help sites serve ads or deliver sponsored-search results that are – theoretically, at least – of interest. Increasingly, they are being used to improve the web experiences as well, whether it’s Netflix using your viewing history to recommend new movies, or apps like Foursquare using geolocation.