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Google Apps Hacks 46

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 its 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, it provides a great overview of just how much is available out there." Read below for the rest of JR's review.
Google Apps Hacks
author Philipp Lenssen
pages 360
publisher O'Reilly Media Inc.
rating 8/10
reviewer JR Peck
ISBN 0-596-51588-X
summary Tips & Tools for Unlocking the Power of Google Applications
There is one issue that I believe must be addressed up front. The title of the book, "Google Apps Hacks" 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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  • by nberardi ( 199555 ) * on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:03PM (#24004237) Homepage

    One of the best hacks I have seen is Google Apps allowing you to create a free low cost Content Delivery Network, under your own domain. []

    • by AllIGotWasThisNick ( 1309495 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:26PM (#24004631)

      allowing you to create a free low cost Content Delivery Network

      "Free Beta" is not the same as "Free". "Free Low Cost" isn't even meaningful. They've made it very clear that they'll be charging for this service, making it more or less equivalent to Amazon's web/cpu hosting services, but targeted towards SMB sites with less technical know-how.

      • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

        "Free Low Cost" should be hyphenated as "Free-Low Cost" read like "Free-to-Low Cost". It implies that one part is free (The software in this case) and the other is cheap (assume Hardware). It can also mean low startup cost and no reoccuring cost (overhead). But your right if they are going to charge for it then it was misused.
      • Google have stated that AppEngine will remain free. The only difference once it is out of beta is that you will be able to buy additional resources (storage, bandwidth, CPU time) from them.

        The original free resources (including 500Mb storage) will remain free, regardless of whether you decide to purchase more.

        • Says you:

          AppEngine will remain free

          Says Google:

          App Engine will always be free to get started

          "Free Trial" is not the same as "Free". Even Amazon (under the guise of Openomy) allows 1GB of free storage.

          • When they say "always free to get started", I understand that to mean that the free version of the service will remain free, always. I admit that the sentence could be read either way.

            It doesn't seem likely that Google would try to charge for it - it's just not very Google-like. I'm not drinking the "don't be evil" Kool-aid here, it's just that they are trying to lock people into their service, and charging for it isn't the way to do that.

            Besides, have you seen how ridiculously cheap the prices are compared

    • by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:44PM (#24004907) Homepage
      Here's a nice little trick I found. If you go to [], you can get an Atom feed of your unread GMail messages.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by eean ( 177028 )

        Or you can just click on the RSS icon in the address bar when you're on the GMail site.

      • by Heembo ( 916647 )
        Right, and then you are logged into your GMAIL account all day leaving you vulnerable to CSRF and Session Hijacking type attacks that are quite common in GMAIL. You are better off using GMAIL pop/imap capabilities or only log onto GMAIL for the length of time needed to check your email. You want to do your best to reduce the active session as much as possible.
  • Excelled? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dedazo ( 737510 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:13PM (#24004423) Journal

    How have they "excelled" at blogging? All they did was buy out Pyra Labs and Blogger came along for the ride. That's true for a lot of their products (or components thereof).

    • Re:Excelled? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Sancho ( 17056 ) * on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:47PM (#24004969) Homepage

      Yup. I'm not trolling here (look, I'm even posting from my real account!) but Microsoft does something like this and everyone screams about how they really don't do any innovation. Google does it, and they excel at things other than search.

      There's a difference in whether or not such diversification is good. With Microsoft, it's typically an effort to extinguish the existing technology. The term most often used was "embrace and extend." So far, we haven't seen this type of behavior from Google.

      Nonetheless, from an innovation standpoint, there's little difference in the methodologies. Both companies took something they don't excel at, threw money at the problem, and rebranded.

      • Re:Excelled? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by eh2o ( 471262 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @03:01PM (#24005141)

        IMHO the apps developed in-house (e.g. gmail, calendar, maps) by google are generally higher quality, in some cases vastly outstepping the competition, and seem to have a more interesting roadmap. The acquired products get a makeover but don't seem to get much active development. Could be a consequence of the Google corporate culture. Featurewise, they are still behind Yahoo in several areas and have been for many years. Too bad Y! is ugly and annoying.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by zrobotics ( 760688 )
          It's also interesting to point out how well they tie in their in-house apps with search, as opposed to the things they bought. It's handy, for example, to have a quick link to google maps when I do a search for, say, a local business. Youtube? It doesn't tie in with the rest of Google's products as seamlessly, and seems like a standalone site that Google just decided to invest in to make some $ (ie Murdoch and myspace). So yes, they do tend to muscle their way into a field MS style on occasion, but their mo
      • I think it's because everyone loves to hate Microsoft, but apart from a few tinfoil hats claiming your privacy is in violation, not many people can think of anything bad to say about Google.

  • by lostjimmy ( 1062920 ) <> on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:22PM (#24004569)

    The reviewer goes to the trouble of saying that most of the 'hacks' in the book are not actually hacks, but then goes on to call most of which were tips and tricks 'hacks'. For instance, inserting a period or plus sign in a gmail address is not a hack; it is a feature that is even documented in the help pages. In fact, I wouldn't consider any of the items to be a hack.

    That being said, it sounds like a really useful book to have around.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) *

      Well - the thing is, the book calls them hacks - and I didn't really know what else to call them - even though they aren't hacks. Probably, the closest thing that is common lately would have been 'recipes' but I couldn't use that language without being even more confusing.

      So I figured making it clear that they aren't hacks right up front would cover that. And it sounds like you got it. It is a useful book. I think the hacks thing is really more of a marketing thing since this is associated with

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Hacks sounds so much more interesting than tips, the same reason foie gras sounds better than duck liver

      SQLDenis []
    • The reviewer goes to the trouble of saying that most of the 'hacks' in the book are not actually hacks, but then goes on to call most of which were tips and tricks 'hacks'.

      I think he was just being deferrential to the publication's preferred usage. Which is fair, but no less annoying. Besides, didn't you know?

      Tips and Tricks are for kids, but Hacks are for h4ck3r5!

      If you did want to read something into it, it would be that the state of computer literacy among the great unwashed masses is so low that ordin

    • by Rob T Firefly ( 844560 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:46PM (#24004945) Homepage Journal
      The definition of is up for perennial debate, but I must say it is refreshing to see a usage like this once in a while, to balance out at least a tiny bit of the constant barrage of mainstream media stories using the term "hackers" to describe everyone from credit fraudsters to music pirates to some guy who sends out harassing Myspace messages.
      • I think people want to feel like they are doing something really clever, zany, or outside-the-mainstream. So we have the word "hack" in the title of the book, even if a lot of things inside aren't really hacks. I wish the technical newbies out there would appreciate that most worthwhile things in programming are done without hacking, and that doing things in a well-considered way can be more enjoyable than crapping something together that works on Tuesday if you stand on one foot and the light hits it rig

  • hacking the calendar (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bogaboga ( 793279 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @02:33PM (#24004743)
    Is it possible to hack GMail in order to have the calendar displayed at the bottom of the message editing text box? Yahoo! mail has this feature which I find sweet. Important dates scroll by as you type yr message.
  • Search/ads, obviously.

    What else?

    As the world moves online, and online advertising becomes the main advertising medium, I can safely say they will continue to grow and be successful, but they will just be one of many successful online advertisers.

    You could fire 1/2 of their employees and still have all the success they have.

    By the way, when was the last time you clicked on a adword link?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    One of the problems I ran into is the fact that Google Apps Engine tends to kill your requests pretty quickly (usually after 9 seconds of wall-clock time). Here is a way to get a bit of a reprieve by chaining the requests using a redirect: [].
    I am curious to see if the book has any suggestion around that problem.
    I think this is closer to a "hack" than most of what the book calls "hacks".

  • sounds like an advertisement.

    Google is still a search and advertisement company and that's pretty much it.

    • Not to me. I type all my book reviews in docs, I use calendar and gmail a lot. I use groups to coordinate a couple projects - I think of google as a great provider of services that I need. Sorry if it sounded like an advert- but it's how I feel. I don't work for and am not related to (in any fashion) anyone who works for google.

    • sounds like an advertisement.

      Google is still a search and advertisement company and that's pretty much it.

      Pretty much it?

      What about all the services (like GMail, PicasaWeb, Google Docs etc.) that Google offers to its customers?

  • by Burz ( 138833 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @03:21PM (#24005403) Homepage Journal

    ...would be a really nice hack. Sketchup is the ONE Google app that I really want, and I haven't been able to get it going under WINE.

  • by carpeweb ( 949895 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @03:54PM (#24006011) Journal
    Am I the only one profoundly disappointed by Google Docs? I tried both the word processor and the spreadsheet and found that they do not come close to my desktop software in the key area of WYSIWYG. Without that, mirroring all the standard buttons and functions of MS Office doesn't do much for me.

    I do think that sharing is easier with Google Docs, but why would I want to share a doc that looks like crap?

    Maybe it won't take a big fix, but it will take a fix before I'd consider switching.

    Also, while Google Sites has some great templates and a pretty easy admin interface, they've got to enable true domain mapping so that I can get on Google Sites, and do something with their confusing rights management.
  • by j_philipp ( 803945 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @04:00PM (#24006131) Homepage
    The author here, I enjoyed reading your review and also will pass on (and chew) on your criticism in regards to the word "hack". I'm really happy you got something out of the book!
    • Don't take his word for gospel. I think it's a great use of the word. And kudos to you writing your second book!

      • Definitely don't. Just my opinion. It's a good book and took a lot more work than writing a review. I have the utmost respect for anyone who can complete a book, let alone a good one.

  • interactively adding a table in Google pages? I am honestly surprised it's not a feature there. C'mon, tables in a web page! I would rather cut my own instead of using pre-definied page layouts(too high level). Can't they port the code from their document creator?

  • I have not read or seen this book so maybe I am not good enough to comment on the *content* of this book. However I am really troubled by these sort of books from O'reilly of late. They look less like books and more like reference cards or compendiums.

Don't get suckered in by the comments -- they can be terribly misleading. Debug only code. -- Dave Storer