Google 411: A Sad Farewell

“Google! Say the business and the city and state,” will soon be a thing of the past. Google recently announced they will be retiring Google 411 on November 12th after 3+ years.

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Google 411 was Google’s first foray into voice-recognition by offering a free voice-powered directory assistance service in 2007. The service allowed you to call 1-800-GOOG-411 and find information on a specific business, have the information texted to your phone, or be connected to them directly. As mentioned in their blog post, Google used GOOG-411 to work on voice-powered technology and gain experience to use as a foundation for other voice products.

In the announcement, Google says,

Our success encouraged us to aim for more innovation. Thus, we’re putting all of our resources into speech-enabling the next generation of Google products and services

This makes sense, as they have started to release more and more voice-powered services for Android-powered devices such as Voice Search or Voice Actions. However being the cynic that I am, I think this is also in part to get users who have yet to adopt smart phones to do so.

What Now?

Haven’t upgraded to a smart phone? Wondering how you’re going to get the number to order pizza at 3am? Well don’t fear, you can still text Google to receive the same information.

What do you think of this move by Google to retire Goog-411? Do you think it’s a cynical bid to sell more Android devices, or simply retiring an aging service? Please let us know in the comments below!

Images courtesy: Google, A Storied Career

Get Search Results From Google on the Go via Text Message

Have you ever been somewhere with a question you need answered, but didn’t have access to a computer? No problem, just whip out your smart-phone and quickly Google it. Oh, you’re like me and don’t have a smart phone yet?

Until recently I thought we were just out of luck, but not anymore because Google Mobile allows you to look up information via normal text messages!

In traditional Google style, Google Mobile is extremely simple. Text whatever you would normally type into Google to GOOGLE (466453) or GOOGL (46645). Google will respond with a summary of the first result it finds, spread out over about 2 text messages. Although this is usually sufficient, you can reply with “Next” and Google will send more information.

More than just search…

Even though you can look up anything through a normal search, it often results in a lot of information you didn’t need. Thankfully, Google implemented the ability to do common searches and have it filter the information a bit for you.

For instance, if you want to know what the weather is in Mountain View, CA, simply text “weather mountain view ca” or “weather 94043” and it will reply with a nicely formatted message with the weather.

Google also includes searches for sports scores, stocks, flight information, movies and more (see here for a complete list.)

Conclusion

While the the Google Mobile service is free, be sure to note that normal text messaging rates from your phone provider will still apply. Each reply generally contains two or three messages, and possibly more if you need to see the next result, so it can eat up messages quickly.

Aside from the number of messages being a concern, Google Mobile is a great, quick, and convenient way for those of us who have yet to join the smart-phone revolution to look up information on the go!

Have you texted Google? Did you like or dislike the service? Let us know in the comments below.

(Images courtesy of Google)

Don’t Get Caught Off Guard By Web Pages Imitating Antivirus Software

Malware, which is any type of harmful software, uses many different methods to trick users into installing it.  A recent trend is to imitate legitimate antivirus software so you inadvertently install the malicious program.

Malware creators utilize scary pictures and language to trick people into believing their computer is infected, and ultimately attempt to make the individual purchase something to remove the fabricated “threats”.

In my experience as an IT support technician, this type of malware is generally installed on an individual’s computers when they click a seemingly harmless link on a website or download a file.  This means the malware can be prevented if users know what to look for and follow safe browsing habits. This article will provide one example of how to do that.

Malware in Disguise

Recently I came across a very interesting pop-up I hadn’t seen before:

Pop-upAt first glance, this error message looks like a legitimate virus notification.  However, this image has some flaws that, with the right knowledge, make it easy to spot as a fake and avoid the consequences of clicking on it.

How to Identify a Fake Virus Notification

The first giveaway that the virus notification shown above is a fake is that it shows the virus scanner running in a “My Computer” window (as seen in the title of the window).  This implies that the virus scanner is a part of Windows, but Microsoft does not have any antivirus software integrated directly into the operating system.

Second, nothing happens when trying to move the window.  Moving the mouse cursor over the buttons doesn’t make them change like you normally see in Windows. You can also observe that there are numerous spelling and grammar mistakes in the text – any professional product would not contain such mistakes so frequently.

Finally, my taskbar only showed that Firefox, iTunes, and Pidgin windows were open, no antivirus. However, it showed an extra Firefox window which I had not opened. At this point I clicked it to bring that window to the foreground and the bogus virus scan appeared.

Since experiencing that first pop-up, I have seen several others that are similar. Each has its own unique features, but the general premise in all of them is the same. Observation techniques such as the ones I used in this situation can be used to determine the legitimacy of many other fake notifications and will help you avoid viruses.

Additional Tips

Besides the specifics of the example in this article, here are some general “good computing” habits to prevent you from being a victim of this latest type of virus:

  • Have legitimate antivirus software installed and updated (Microsoft Security Essentials, avast!, Avira, and AVG are all good antivirus products that can be downloaded and used free of charge).
  • Know the name and logo of your installed antivirus software.  If you see a notification with a different name, you’ll immediately know that it’s a fake.
  • Take time before clicking on links or images to make sure you know what they are and where they lead.

In the past, this type of virus has been relatively easy to remove.  However, recent iterations have proved more tenacious, which makes it that much more important to know how to prevent them.

Have you have encountered any similar pop-ups? Or have you gotten the malware that can be caused by them? Do you have any other additions, comments or questions about good browsing habits to prevent getting malware? Please let me know in the comments below!

Image Credit: http://www.salisbury.edu/helpdesk/

Follow Up: My Experience with Microsoft Security Essentials Anti-Malware Software

ThumbnailA few months ago, Evan wrote a great article about Microsoft’s free anti-malware application, Microsoft Security Essentials. After using Microsoft Security Essentials for several months, I’ve been able to get a good sense of how it stacks up against the competition.

My first experience with Security Essentials was on my own computer. It had some relatively benign spyware which wasn’t being removed by my standard set of scans, so I thought I’d give Microsoft Security Essentials a try.

As Evan mentioned in his article, Microsoft Security Essentials is a quick, painless installation and it automatically updates its virus definitions. This is a handy feature because it prevents me from wasting time by running a scan and then realizing I forgot to update and having to do it all over again.

After updating the virus definitions, I elected to go straight for the full scan option, not really knowing what to expect in terms of time. The full scan took about 3 hours to finish. This was on an older computer, but it still surprised me how long it took. However, the wait was worth it, as it found and easily removed the malware that none of the other products I tried were able to!

Microsoft Security Essentials

Since I found Microsoft Security Essentials to be successful at home, I have been using it more frequently at my IT job. Although it still isn’t part of the standard set of scans we run, Microsoft Security Essentials seems to find malware that other applications miss. Most of the time, it takes care of the malware without causing any additional problems to the system.

We’ve recently seen an issue with a Windows Update for Windows XP combined with a virus causing a Blue Screen of Death error.  Kevin wrote a fantastic guide to resolving the problem, and he found that using Microsoft Security Essentials seems to be the most successful  method for removing this particularly nasty malware.

Conclusion

Although the full scan still seems to take significantly longer than other products on the same hardware, it can be worth the time because Microsoft Security Essentials finds malware that other products miss. I still recommend using a combination of anti-malware products when running manual scans (since each one has unique strengths and weaknesses), but if your usual set of scans does not do the trick, I would give Microsoft Security Essentials a spin!

Have you used Security Essentials? Have your results been similar to mine, or have you had a different experience? I’d love to get feedback in the comments below!

Coming Soon: The End of DVDs?

universal-picturesAccording to a new article on movies.com, Universal Pictures will no longer be selling stand-alone DVD copies of several of it’s movies as of January 1st, 2010. Instead, the movies will only be sold as Blu-ray/DVD bundles.

This bundling is not new since Disney and other studios have already been bundling Blu-rays, DVDs and digital copies, but this is the first time a stand-alone DVD is not also being manufactured.

Blu-ray/DVD bundle packs are generally a good deal for people with Blu-ray players because you get a Blu-ray for the main TV, plus a DVD and digital copy for more portable viewing. However, for those of us who have yet to shell out the money for a PS3 or other Blu-ray player, this might be the push that finally makes us go to the store.  As the article says, “This means if you are a stickler for standard definition, you’d better start getting used to Blu-rays being bundled with your movies.”

Could this be the beginning of the end for new movies being released on DVD? Probably not, but who knows. What do you think the future holds for movies on DVDs?

How to Replace Your Boring Voicemail with Google Voice

google-voicemail-thumbWhen Google first opened Google Voice, I was very excited to check it out.  I was especially looking forward to their voicemail service, particularly the transcription feature.  However, after checking it out for a few minutes I lost interest.  Although a lot of the features were great, I would have to switch my number to a separate Google Voice number to really take advantage of many of the features.  That is just not a switch I’m willing to make for a few new features.

However, when I walked into work on Tuesday, I saw Evan and Dustin setting up their phones to take advantage of Google Voice’s voicemail using their current carrier.  Suddenly, Google Voice became very useful to me!

Essentially, you can now use Google Voice’s voicemail service instead of your standard carrier’s system, allowing you to take advantage of the robust voicemail service without giving your friends a completely new number.  I’m not very savvy with my phone (I just use it for calling and texting) so at first glance, I thought it would be a bit challenging to set up. In usual Google fashion, though, they made it deceptively easy!

Setting up Google Voice for Voicemail

The first step is to log into your Google Voice account (if you don’t have one yet, you can request an invite on the Google Voice site or from a friend who already has an account).

After you have logged in, proceed to the main settings page by clicking on the Settings link in the upper right.  After you’ve added at least one device to your account, you should now see a link to “Activate Google voice mail for this phone.” Click it!

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That will pop up a window to help you enable forwarding on your phone. Select your carrier and follow the instructions.

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After you “call” the provided number, it will set your phone to forward to Google Voice if you don’t answer your phone.  Once you’re done calling the number, ask a friend to call your phone and have them leave a voicemail.  If everything went smoothly they should get forwarded to your Google voicemail instead of your regular carrier’s!

Additional Tweaking

If you are content with the default settings, you’re done! If not, go back to the main settings page and tweak the voicemail settings to your liking. Personally, I have it send me a text to notify me when I get a new voice mail. Not only does it serve the function of notifying me I got a message but it also contains the transcription of the message. I find this to be very helpful because if I’m in class or at work and I can’t answer my phone, I can still get the message and decide if I need to excuse myself to respond.

The only problem I’ve run into so far is initially, it will ring way to many times before going to voicemail because it rings X number of times on your phone, and then X number of times on Google before going to voicemail. To fix that, check out this article written by Evan.

I am just beginning to explore all the possibilities, and I hope you will join me as we figure out just how useful this new feature really is. So far, at least, I really enjoy Google’s voicemail because it allows me to see the content of messages in situations where I couldn’t use my phone to check.

What do you like best about the new Google voice mail?  Share it with us in the comments!

How to Share Your Screen with Skype

skypeHave you ever been talking to someone on Skype and exhausted your vocabulary trying in vain to describe something on your screen to the other person?  I’ve found myself in that situation many times.  It used to be that the only option was to have the person remotely connect to my computer, which was cumbersome at the least, and at most kept me from sharing it because it would have been impossible to walk the other person through the connection process over Skype!

The latest release of Skype includes a feature that allows you to share your screen natively within the application.  Not only is it a great feature, but the people at Skype have really outdone themselves by making it intuitive, smooth, and of high quality.

If you already have Skype installed, make sure to update it to the most recent edition by going to Help –> Check For Updates and let it install.  If you do not have Skype installed, you’ll need to install the Skype client and set up an account.  This is very straightforward to do: download the client at http://www.skype.com, run the installer, and follow the on screen prompts.

Once the client is installed and Skype has started, it will prompt you to log in.  If you already have an account you can login immediately, if not, you can create one from within the program.

skype_screen_sharing_loginAfter you have logged into Skype, you will need to add some contacts.  That is outside the scope of this article but Skype is fairly intuitive and has decent help if it isn’t making sense.  After you have added a contact, call them!

To start sharing your screen, right click on a contact’s name either in the contact list or at the top of the call screen.  In the drop down menu, you will see a selection that says “Share Your Screen”, where you can choose whether to share you entire screen or just a specific area.

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If you picked “Share Selection” a window will pop up that allows you to pick the selection.  The window can be resized and dragged around just as any other window to include whatever you want to in your selection.  Once you have what you want to share in the window (don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, you can adjust it later) click on “Start Screen Sharing.”

skype_screen_sharing_SharedAfter you click the button, the window will change to a red outline and the selection will be shared.  If you want to change the selection size, simply click on the down arrow and drag to resize the window.  You can make the selection size full screen by clicking the ‘full screen’ button.

The quality of Skype’s screen sharing feature is very impressive.  When sharing a word document or a web page, the text is easily readable by the other person and for the images are just as good if you were looking at the page on your own computer.  There is a minor amount of lag when scrolling and changing pages, but it isn’t disruptive.  Viewers also have the ability to take screenshots of the screen you are sharing, which is a great feature.

As a test of the transfer rate, I tried watching a video through the screen share.  When the video did not contain much movement it worked well, but during large amounts of movement, the transfer rate decreased significantly.

One thing to consider when using Skype is you’re the speed of your broadband connection.  I was using a fast connection, but if you’re on a slower line (or are using other bandwidth-intensive applications like VOIP at the same time), you may have a decrease in quality.

I am very pleased with the new screen sharing feature in Skype.  Not only does it allow for easy, high quality screen sharing, but it also has seamless integration into the Skype user-interface.  And the best part? It’s free!