Google’s cloudy Outlook

I was asked yesterday to give my opinion on Google Apps, specifically the features that come with the MS Office competitors that are wrapped up in Google Docs. The context was for rollout within a small organisation of around 20 people, one heavily based on technology.

The base offering behind Google Apps is solid and wonderful. It allows you to manage your email for people across your organisation through a single, rich, web-based application. It gives each person over 7Gb of storage, 25Gb if you pay $50 per user per year. It allows you to sync, if you wish, back to Outlook or some other mail client while retaining a copy of everything you send and receive in the Cloud. (I’ve been using it for over four years and have used less than 3Gb of storage, without ever having deleted a single non-spam email.) My biggest bugbear with the interface is that I can’t default to Georgia, my font of choice.

Its calendar features are OK too. Google offers much of the functionality offered in Outlook, although there are some things that need development. I attached a couple of documents to a calendar invite the other day and found out that the documents come through as Google links (not great from my own branding perspective), and that these links could not be accessed through one of my clients’ firewalls. Probably not a problem for everyone, but they won’t be unique in that situation either.

But when it comes to the core creative tools—the competitors to Word, Excel and PowerPoint—Google doesn’t yet cut the mustard. For basic word processing, it’s fine. You can write a letter, do some nice formatting, write a proposal and the like. Some of the more advanced MS Word features are lacking—document review, for example—but the feature set on offer probably caters for 90% of requirements for 90% of users. All users will be frustrated at the lack of something they rely on, but in most instances, it won’t be a showstopper.

Spreadsheets are a different story altogether. Excel’s feature set is rich. Rich beyond words. There are things that Excel does that we take for granted, both in terms of core functionality and navigational behaviour. Google’s is not. It caters for some very base requirements, but beyond that, it struggles. I tried to copy and paste some cells from an Excel spreadsheet into Google Docs the other day, and it failed miserably to deal with ALT+Enter in-cell carriage returns.  It’s fine for your very basic spreadsheets: some contacts, some basic financial information. But anything much more complex: forget it.

As for presentations, I have no experience of using these, so can’t really comment.

I subscribe to an internal Google forum that notifies me whenever new functionality comes on board. A while ago, I was getting emails every day describing the new functionality on offer, each relatively trivial in itself, but slowly chipping away on the leviathan that is MS Office. Lately, the emails have been very few and very far between. I don’t know whether this is a strategic change in direction by Google or merely a temporary blip before further onslaught.

So in a nutshell, you should fall over yourself to get your email and calendar on to Google Apps. But for now, don’t throw away your Office licences.

Oh oh

Cabinet Office, January 2000:

More and more services such as these will be moving onto the Internet over the next year. The Cabinet Office has recently requested tenders for a new government portal——which will be launched in the summer to give personalised, one-stop access to such services. We will need to challenge and inspire all government departments and agencies to make their own on-line services available to citizens through this single portal.

Gordon Brown, March 2010:

Mygov will constitute a radical new model for how public services will be delivered and for how citizens engage with government—making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping. This open, personalised platform will allow us to deliver universal services that are also tailored to the needs of each individual; to move from top-down, monolithic websites broadcasting public service information in the hope that the people who need help will find it—to government on demand.

Corporation Tax: it shouldn’t have to be taxing

In a follow-up to my VAT whinge from the weekend, here’s a follow-up whinge relating to Corporation Tax.  Not the government’s fault this time, but my bank’s.  Although the two are now somewhat synonymous, given the banks’ funding arrangements.

I tried to pay HMRC my Corporation Tax last weekend, but my online banking interface wouldn’t let me.  The amount of the transaction (five figures) surpassed the daily amount that I could transfer.  I could keep coming back on a daily basis to pay a bit more, but that’s hardly the point.

I called them up to find out whether I could undertake the transaction over the phone.  But I couldn’t.  The same rules apply.  The lady directed me to pay by cheque or make the transaction in a branch.

I popped into a branch today, and the teller told me (is that why they’re called tellers?) that the only way to pay that amount electronically was to perform a Bacs transfer, costing me £30.

Now I’m not a big fan of paying money to HMRC at the best of times.  But paying for this privilege is certainly not something I’m keen to embrace.  So I’ll be writing a cheque tonight.  And popping it in the post.  A transaction that will cost me more to facilitate (in the form of a stamp and an envelope), will likely cost both HMRC and my bank more to process.



Paul Clarke introduced me today to the pastime of Tubewhacking.  Similar to Googlewhacking, it involves finding an English word none of whose letters appears in the name of a Tube station, and for that station to be unique in that quality.  The most famous example I know is St. John’s Wood, none of the letters of the word mackerel appearing in its name, a claim that no other station can make.

I wondered whether any stations were themselves Tubewhacks of other stations.  So I got to work.

Fortunately, the number of columns in Excel has increased recently—I needed 7,616 columns to complete my logic, along with a tidy 11.8Mb.  And below is a summary of the results.

There are 59 stations that have Tubewhacks, although their Tubewhacks come from only 22 unique stations.  Bank is the most common, being the Tubewhack of a whopping (not Wapping) nine stations. Each of Vauxhall and Woodford accounts for seven Tubewhacks.

Below is the full list—station on the left, Tubewhack on the right.

Barbican: Temple
Becontree: Vauxhall
Bermondsey: Vauxhall
Bond Street: Vauxhall
Boston Manor: Chigwell
Brent Cross: Vauxhall
Burnt Oak: Chigwell
Camden Town: Ruislip
Canary Wharf: Temple
Canning Town: Shepherd’s Bush
Charing Cross: Temple
Chorleywood: Bank
Colliers Wood: Bank
Dagenham Heathway: Ruislip
East Putney: Woodford
Eastcote: Kilburn
Edgware: Pimlico
Elephant & Castle: Woodford
Elm Park: St. John’s Wood
Farringdon: Temple
Fulham Broadway: Epping
Gants Hill: Woodford
Goldhawk Road: Upney
Green Park: Dollis Hill
Hainault: Woodford
Hampstead: Kilburn
Highgate: Woodford
Holloway Road: Epping
Ickenham: Woodford
Kew Gardens: Pimlico
Knightsbridge: Oval
Leyton: Chiswick Park
Limehouse: Bank
Liverpool Street: Bank
Mill Hill East: Woodford
Mornington Crescent: Vauxhall
Newbury Park: Dollis Hill
Perivale: St. John’s Wood
Piccadilly Circus: Kenton
Plaistow: Debden
Putney Bridge: Oval
Queensway: Pimlico
Richmond: St. Pauls
Rotherhithe: Bank
Royal Victoria: Debden
Shadwell: Brixton
Shoreditch: Bank
Southfields: Bank
St. James’s Park: Hillingdon
Tooting Bec: Vauxhall
Tower Hill: Bank
Upminster Bridge: Oval
Upton Park: Chigwell
Warren Street: Pimlico
West Brompton: Vauxhall
West Finchley: Moor Park
West Ham: Kilburn
West Hampstead: Kilburn
West Ruislip: Bank

Liverpool Street and Bank form the only pairing in the above list that are one stop away from one another.

March 14, 1592

With American pi day fast approaching (this Sunday), I got to thinking that on March 14, 1592, this was a big, big, geeky event.  Not that America had been invented by then, of course.

Tax: it doesn’t have to be taxing. But it is

Today, I used the Government Gateway to pay my VAT online for the first time.  I believe this will become compulsory from 1 April—April Fools’ Day.  The experience wasn’t entirely positive.

There are too many IDs.

I registered my intention to do this by enrolling for the service a few weeks ago.  A few days later, a couple of pieces of post popped through my door from the Government Gateway folk.  In one, a User ID.  In the other, an activation code for the VAT service in one of those PIN-esque styles where you rip off the bit of paper to reveal the code.  The former: twelve numerics; the latter: twelve alphanumerics.

On sign-on, I had to give my password.  I have no idea when or where I generated this, so I had to answer a few questions about my last VAT submission before my re-issued password was revealed to me.  This was a twelve byte alphanumeric, all lowercase.  The first half appeared as part of the web page.  The second half was sent to me via email.  Secure yet annoying.

I then enrolled, I think, for the VAT service.  Before doing so, I had to answer a few questions, including:

Now get this.  None of the above could contain any spaces (although they had minimum and maximum character limits).  (Eton wouldn’t be accepted, btw—too short.)  Now I will struggle to remember the memorable place, because I chose one that I think is poignant, but it’s one of many.  And similarly with dates.  There is more than one of great significance in my life.  The last two questions were straightforward, but the space embargo will doubtless prompt me to abbreviate in the future where I didn’t today, or else come up with some other whacky way of meeting the crazy rules while not providing the right value.  (What did the space do to us that was so bad?)

Finally, I got to do my VAT return, which itself was relatively painless, apart from the deeply hidden guidance about what to do for zero values.  (Offline, you write “NONE”.  Online, you type “0.00”.)

All in all, painful.  It shouldn’t be this hard.  Should it?

Journalists: listen up

The following stories are not newsworthy:

Are there any other stories that need to be added to the list?

Proof by induction: Tube carriages are infinitely large

Take a standard Northern Line Tube carriage.

However many people are on board that carriage, at least one more adult can squeeze on.  This step has been proven at every station on the northbound southern leg of the Northern Line for many a year.

The smallest adult weighs 4.5kg, and with the average human having a body density of around one gram per cubic centimetre, that equates to a lower bound of 0.0045 cubic metries occupied by a person.

Therefore the lower bound for the volume taken up by a Northern Line Tube carriage is 0.0045 cubic metres multiplied by the number of occupants.

Given that the number of occupants can always be increased by one, a Northern Line Tube carriage is infinitely large.


Happiness is…

Everything we do is intended to improve the fulfilment of ourselves or others, either directly or indirectly, either now or at some point in the future.

The key to happiness is striking a perfect balance between the three variables, and being in full control of them: ourselves vs. others; direct vs. indirect influence; and immediate vs. future fulfilment.