Google prunes some of its branches

It is that time again at Google when it has to prune some of its various branches. Since Google co-founder Larry Page took over the reins as CEO in April last year, Google has been reducing and trimming its projects to renew and regain focus.

Google has come under investor scrutiny as it is facing increasing competition from both Apple and Facebook.

This spring cleaning is part of the various cost cutting and refocusing efforts. In the latest cleaning exercise announced a few weeks ago, Google will be pulling the plug on seven of its projects.

1. Google Knol

Google launched Knol in 2007 to help improve web content and as a challenge to Wikipedia that enabled experts to collaborate on in-depth articles. Knol will be available till April 30, 2012, to enable users to download their Knols to a file and/or migrate them to the WordPress platform. After that till October 1, 2012, Knols cannot be viewed but users will be able to download and export content. After October 2012, the Knol content will no longer be available.

2. Google Gears

Google has closed the Gears browser extension for creating offline web applications and stopped supporting new browsers in March this year. From December 1, 2011, Gears-based Gmail and Calendar offline will not work across all browsers, and Gears will not be available for download from late December this year. Google announced that this is part of their effort to help incorporate offline capabilities into HTML5. Users can access Gmail, Calendar and Docs offline in Chrome.

3. Renewable Energy

Google has abandoned its ambitious plans to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. Google had started this project in 2007 as a means on driving down the price of renewable energy with a strong focus on solar power. Google announced that the head of the project, Bill Weihl (William E. Weihl) has left the company and it believes that other organizations were in a better position to take its efforts to the next level.

4. Google Wave

Google has earlier stopped further development on Google Wave. Now it has announced that as of January 31, 2012, Wave will be available as only a read-only version and users won’t be able to create new ones. This will be completed closed on April 30, 2012. Users can transfer individual waves using the existing PDF export feature.

5. Google Search Timeline

Google will be removing this feature that displays a historical graph of results for a search query. Users will now be able to restrict any search to particular time periods using the refinement tools on the left-hand side of the search page. Uses who wish to view graphs with historical trends for a web search can use Google Trends or Google Insights for data since 2004. If you need more historical data, the “Ngram Viewer” in Google Books offers the same information.

The Google Trends Product Logo

6. Google Friend Connect

Google Friend Connect, which is a social feature, will be discontinued from March, this is because Google wants people to start using the Google Plus social network instead.

7. Google Bookmarks

The feature will become unavailable from December 19, 2011. This enabled users to share bookmarks and collaborate with friends. The existing bookmark Lists will be retained and labelled to make it easier to identify. The other features of the Google Bookmarks will keep on functioning. The change won’t affect the non-English users as it was an English only feature.

This spring cleaning is only a sign that Google knows that it currently faces big competition, so it needs to make sure that it discontinues disused/inefficient services it provides.

Cleaner Electricity Production

Producing electricity is often a dirty and polluting affair. Here in the US most is still produced by burning coal, rather like in the 19th century. Nuclear power production is seen by some as an answer as it doesn’t throw a tone of gasses and toxins into the atmosphere and can produce an enormous amount of power in comparison to the fuel it uses. But nuclear power brings its own sets of problems, you only have to look at recent events in Japan or take a trip to Ukraine to see that. And parts of the North Sea round the British Isles are contaminated from leaks from an infamous UK nuclear power station that shall remain nameless (although like New York it too was so good they named it twice) and the unforeseeable problems involved in storing radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years to name but a few rather thorny issues.

However some people that define themselves as fighting for a cleaner environmental electricity production policy, do argue that nuclear power is a move in the right direction, that alternative forms could never provide enough power to feed the planet and the very fact that nuclear power production does not create tons of carbon means it is advantageous in fighting the possible problems of global warming. There are undoubtedly advantages and disadvantages to this form of power production, but political and financial interests are also important factors to bear in mind.

Clean electricity for a better world

There are several other ways of producing cleaner electricity though as we know, but they too have their problems. Building a dam to use the water to drive turbines can have devastating effects on the surrounding areas. Look at the Yangtze Dam project in China and the effect of this engineering project on the people and animals that used to inhabit the newly flooded areas.

Wind farms also seem a good solution but some people say they are ugly and here in Cape Cod in the US there is a large protest movement growing out of claims by people that live near wind turbines who claim health problems, stress and migraines due to the flickering effect of the blades turning in the sun.

Solar panels are always sold as a good option, but they are expensive to manufacture because processed silicon is costly due to its high demand. There are also the problems of how to dispose of the panel when it is no longer efficient and the nature of the silicon purification process.

In Italy farmers have taken government subsidies and covered their land with solar panels in a bid to improve profits. In some cases the panels form a sort of protection for the crops while they produce electricity, but in a lot of cases the agricultural land is just lost to a sea of silicon, causing people to complain both about the aesthetics and the land use issue. Government green incentives mean that there is no need to ask for planning permission so these ‘silicon farms’ as they are known are cropping up in some rather inopportune places (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) and are in massive expansion as this article demonstrates.

But fortunately as we would hope in a blog like this there have been some really interesting developments recently in non silicon based solar energy production that we can look at.

The sun between someones hands

Harnessing the sun

A couple of years ago researchers in Italy unveiled something called the Dye Solar Cell (DSC). It doesn’t use silicon to produce electricity but guess what? It uses vegetable dye from egg plant (aubergines). Well not being a scientist myself I thought, ‘yes, plants do photosynthesis don’t they, why didn’t I think of that?’, and I wasn’t far wrong.

The cells don’t have the same productive power so the area needs to be bigger to produce the same amount of power but they are incomparably cheaper and greener. Ideal for use for example on large low buildings such as barns or industrial units that can have the entire roof covered in vegetable cells and produce the electricity the occupants require for free. Good news.

But what if you haven’t got a huge roof? Well an Austrian company called Bleiner AG has developed a type of paint called Photon Inside that has the same capability. It has to be applied in a few coats and cost more than standard paint but a 50 square metre wall generates 3 Kw of electricity. It was developed for use on sailing boats so that they could operate a radio and radar while out at sea. Sorry but the only articles I can find online are in Italian.

Konarka is an interesting American company who have developed a power generating plastic. It can be made very thin and comes in a roll that you just cut to size, stick on your Venetian blinds or any other surface that takes a lot of sun and away you go. They also sell Power Fibre, as you would imagine it is a thread that you can weave, so you can make textiles that produce energy and can be made into clothes. I like this idea, you could buy a computer case that charges the computer using sunlight as you walk to work.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) they have recently unveiled their ability to print solar panels on to paper. A great breakthrough as it makes the technology easy to transport and place in position but also cheap and hardwearing (you can laminate it). Research at the University of Verona in Italy goes one step further, they are developing completely transparent thin sheets of solar panels that you can attach to the window and look through.

These final applications described above really take solar electric production to a higher level, as practically any surface can be used to produce electricity. The breakthrough here is in the technology required to transport the current more than its production, as attaching the diodes has long been the most difficult part of thin surface electricity production as they tend to come off with any movement in the surface.

Using the sea is also an option. Off the UK there is the giant Sea Snake trial taking place as well as the Oyster wave generator installation, and in the US buoys have been developed that generate electricity from their constant up and down motion, easy to place and a help rather than a hindrance to shipping.

As Christopher pointed out in a recent post, global warming is a real and serious problem and electricity production could be a major element in pollutant gas production, but as I hope to have shown above there are many interesting developments if we allow ourselves a slightly different point of view on electricity management.

A less centralized way of thinking and we could produce a lot of the electricity we need in situ, using our own buildings as power plants.

I have written more extensively on this problem on the Bassetti Foundation website and there are also various related articles about renewable energy sources and the problems involved in their use.

Next week I will have a look at possible engineering solutions for the problematic issue of global warming.

Smart Meters are the future for your home electricity

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Smart meters are a clever new technology, that can help to improve the way your energy usage is monitored and recorded, but many people know very little about this new bit of tech.

Smart Meters

Smart meters are a technology that are transforming our understanding of energy, and how we use it. What they allow you to do is to work out how much energy you are using, and on what, much better than ever before.

Smart meters measure gas and electricity usage in your home, by replacing your old electricity and gas meter, with an all new one.

For more information, watch this useful British Gas video about smart meters 🙂

The Benefits

This new energy meter allows you to see much easier how much electricity you are using, due to their handy in-home display, which puts you in control  of your energy.

Thanks to smart meters you can see in real time how much energy you are using. You can check this on its user friendly energy monitor, either online or through our smartphone app. So if you have your kettle and TV on and you are using 1KW, then you know what those appliances use.

According to British Gas this gives you the potential to reduce your bills by around a fantastic 10%!  This is because thanks to smart meters, you can see what energy you are using, and therefore can start to make small changes to use less and save money on your bills.

Another handy thing about smart meters is that they report wireless, so there is no longer a need (or the hassle!) for you or an engineer to take readings. Furthermore, the readings sent will now be 100% accurate, for total piece of mind.

Installation

In the UK British Gas are aiming to provide smart meters in all homes in the near future – meaning that everyone can benefit from this new technology.

British Gas's Corporate LogoThey are starting the roll out now, with 120,000 homes in the UK already having a smart meter. This will grow to around 1.5million by the end of 2012.

Because they are so useful, the UK government has mandated that all households will need to have smart meters installed by 2019.

British Gas have already started to introduce smart meters to homes across the UK, in order to make sure that we are ready in time for 2019.

When your home is ready for an upgrade, British Gas will contact you and their highly trained Smart Energy Experts will change your meters, and explain how to use your energy display and save on your bills.

Head over to British Gas’s website and Facebook page to find out more about smart meters and how you can get yours installed!

What do you think about the new meters which could save you money? Do you have any questions on anything I haven’t covered about smart meters?