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+ - SPAM: Google Apps Hacks

Submitted by
stoolpigeon
stoolpigeon writes "It seems that it wasn't long ago that Google was just a search company. The number of on-line products that fly under the Google moniker, today, is impressive. Google has moved well beyond it's office-suite-like applications and excelled with everything from mapping to blogging to 3-D drawing. "Google Apps Hacks" is a new book from O'Reilly, published in conjunction with their Make magazine. This volume presents the reader with 141 hacks in an attempt to get the most out of a wide array of Google's on-line applications. The result is a quick ride that is rather fun and while a bit shallow at times, provides a great overview of just how much is available out there.

There is one issue that I believe must be addressed up front. The title of the book is quite catch- "Google Apps Hacks". It led me to believe that it would be a book full of hacks. The connection with Make made this seem all the more likely. I guess the definition of a hack is somewhat up for debate. I tend to agree with a couple that I found over at the Urban Dictionary, "A clever or elegant technical accomplishment, especially one with a playful or prankish bent. A clever routine in a computer program, especially one which uses tools for purposes other than those for which they were intended, might be considered a hack." and "A temporary, jury-rigged solution, especially in the fields of computer programming and engineering: the technical equivalent of chewing gum and duct tape." I see hacks as either thrown together solutions or extremely clever solutions that use something in a way that is not really what was part of the original intention for that thing. By either definition, many of the hacks in this book, are not hacks. I may be making a large assumption, but I do assume that many will share my opinion on the definition of a hack, so I think it is important that they understand what this book does contain, if it is not full of hacks.

I think what would be more accurate, and probably much less marketable, is that this is a book of Google Apps snippets, instructions and a few hacks. The hacks themselves are rated in the book as one of three levels — Easy, Intermediate and Expert. There are 141 total as I mentioned and they break down like this; 72 easy, 50 intermediate and 19 expert. That says something all on its own. This is especially true when some of the easy hacks include things like signing up for a Gmail account or accessing your calendar from a mobile phone. The instructions to do those things are not a hack, they are instructions on how to use the software as it was intended to be used. No clever tricks, no thrown together work-around, just documentation for things that are pretty easy to do.

With all that said, I think that the book has a high level of value. I just think that someone who judges it by its cover (which we all do, old sayings aside) may get an unpleasant surprise. What is the value, if it does not lie in providing a ton of hacks? Well, this book is an excellent introduction to Google's many on-line applications. I use many already and still learned of a couple new ones when I read this book. It also does bring all that instruction into one place, and provides a very user-friendly style of instruction. There is also a very nice feature, 8 sections that take the reader "Beyond Google...". Each of these sections informs the reader about alternative software that provides similar functionality to the Google software described in the preceding chapter. This is really a great resource and an unexpected bonus for anyone who reads the book.

The book covers the entire Google Documents family with an overview and then chapters that deal specifically with documents, spreadsheets and presentations. The beyond Google section presents Zoho, EditGrid and the ThinkFree on-line office suite. There are some nice hacks here that revolve around using the sharing capabilities as well as pulling data from all over the web and into documents. For example Hack #27 is one of the expert hacks and gives 5 pages of explanation, with black and white images as well as code snippets, on how to pull data from any web site into a spreadsheet. This also serves as a nifty little example of xpath and uncovers some very cool Google spreadsheet functionality. Hack #29 is another rated expert that uses screen scraping, but this time to add currency conversion capabilities to a spread sheet. I thought these were not only fun but did a great job of opening up my mind to a number of other possible uses for these tools.

The chapter on Gmail is for the most part pretty basic. One of the expert hacks, altering the appearance of Gmail using ones own stylesheet, is useful not only for Gmail but for any site that one might be interested in modifying. The coverage is decent and much of the functionality and interface is very well documented. The other products introduced are Yahoo! Mail, MS Hotmail and Mozilla Thunderbird. One simple hack is the ability to create 'spare' email addresses with the use of periods in the name or the use of '+' to add onto the name. This hack gained quite a bit of attention on the web not that long ago, and is one of the easy hacks, but still very useful.

Many of the hacks, including hack #54, from the Gmail section, originated with someone other than Lenssen. He is careful to point this out, in the text of the hack, which I thought was very cool. Not giving credit would be a real problem, but it didn't need to be so prominent. That hack, by the way, is how to use the undocumented "lang" operator to search messages based on language. Another easy hack that could be extremely useful.

iGoogle is covered, along with instructions on creating Gadgets. I thought the ability to add any flash game as a gadget was fun but damaging to my productivity. The other options presented are Netvibes, Pageflakes and Protopage. This is followed up with Google Calendar and some nice instructions on adding a Calendar xml widget to a blog, or the inverse, embedding a vast array of content into Calendar events. The other options here are Yahoo! Calendar, Microsoft's Calendar and 30 Boxes. These are both followed by the chapter on Google reader and a list of a number of other possible reader services.

The chapter covering photos and video is shorter than the others when taking into account that it covers Picasa, YouTube and GoogleVideo, but I think that there just isn't as much flexibility or need there as in some of the other applications. The chapter on blogging and Google Groups is just the opposite, with quite a few more hacks and some nice tips on getting the most from each of those services.

Google Maps, Google Earth and Sketchup 3D are covered in a single chapter together. There are some nifty hacks here, though some of the more flashy have already received quite a bit of attention all over the internet. For example, the ability to use Google Earth as a flight simulator has already gained a huge amount of attention on most high profile sites, and many blogs, low traffic sites, etc.

The last chapter covers tools like Analytics and ways to go about doing search engine optimization and generating traffic. There are some nice ideas for the individual who really wants to analyze what traffic they have and try to get more. Here there are some good examples of another strength of the book. It does a good job of crossing over between applications. Two good examples here are Hack #133, which covers exporting Analytics data to Google Spreadsheets and hack #136 which is a very clever way to do user surveys using Google Spreadsheets again.

As I mentioned, most of the book is a bit shallow. But that is not always the case. Some of the expert hacks are not too tough, but do require the reader to get a handle on more than just basic concepts and tools. Some are excellent exercises in getting exposed to all kinds of technology. Hack #121 lets the reader know how to create Google Maps overlays on the fly using Python to generate KML, using data that it read from a MySQL database. That's fun stuff and a far cry from hack #1 "How to Get Your Google Account." In fact for some people, the entire book may be worth these gems.

The book has a nice glossy cover and the 9.7 x 8.0 dimensions mean that it doesn't feel to thick for its almost 400 pages. Those pages fly by and each hack is accompanied by plenty of illustrations and code snippets where appropriate. The table of contents breaks things down well, and each hack is named there and the names give an accurate description of the content. The index is acceptable and the two combine to make this a very easy resource to pick up and jump to just the right content. It can be read from front to back, but that is not at all necessary and there is no thread or flow that would necessitate reading it in order unless the reader was completely new to one of the applications presented. In that case, it might be best to work from the introduction of that application first.

The introduction states that Lenssen and his editor used Google Documents to write this book. This is not much of a surprise as Lenssen's own blog is dedicated to watching Google and their doings.

I've found this to be an extremely useful book. I've used it setting up a Google Site. I've learned about some web applications from Google and from others that I didn't even know existed. I get myself into a bit of a tizzy over the whole use of the word 'hack' thing, but that's just the geek in me coming out. Sometimes I think we love to bicker over stuff like that. That aside, this is a solid book full of useful material."
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Google Apps Hacks

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