Knols are moving into public Beta

Google has now opened up its developing database of Knols. See the official announcement (“a knol is an authoritative article about a specific topic”), and Danny Sullivan’s helpful assessment. Danny provides a good outline of what Knol is doing and how it works. His reservation is particularly interesting:

Overall, I still lean toward not wanting Google to do this. I remain concerned that by hosting this content, it plays too much in the content owner space when its core business is supposed to be driving traffic outbound to others. Hosting content sets up inherent conflicts that over time start to erode the trust people have in Google, I feel.

Danny doesnt want Google to do it. But they are starting to do it, and it may now be tricky to pull back (they probably should). There are several hundred knols up there that you can test and evaluate, most of them are medical. You could write your own.

The knol that I looked at closely was on Breathing wine. It gave me some basic information. But it could have been written much more concisely, the take-home message is “don’t bother to open bottles hours/minutes before you drink them, and if you need to decant because of the lees, then decant”. In the 1,250 word article (this ‘knol’ terminology is a trifle tiresome) there was not a single link to anything, to any citation or to any source on the web. This is a specific weakness of the article that I selected, many of the medical entries have impressive references and citations. But there is no common format or standard for the level of annotation. This editorial uneveness suggests that the Knol project has a long way to go. Wikipedia works in part because of the tireless work of hundreds of experienced and unpaid editors who beaver away tidying things up.

Academic reference publishers will smile and recognise the challenge that the Knol project is facing. Giving a huge bunch of experts their head without detailed editorial planning and supervision is going to produce an uneven and messy mixture. Knol is a very curious enterprise for Google to be pursuing. It is a long, long way from PageRank.

The wikipedia entry on knol is impressive. There is not yet a knol entry on wikipedia.

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Gmail is Superb

But did you realise that it is still in Beta?

Perhaps it is Google’s modesty that keeps such a wonderful and functional service in perpetual beta (or, dreadful thought, perhaps they will turn it into a paid for subscription service when it comes out of Beta).

Google has lots of services, many of them fabulous. But some of them deserve the ‘beta’ classification more than others. Google Book Search is still very definitely beta. The mooted Google Knol appears to have gone into an invisible beta phase, and I would not be surprised if it stayed there indefinitely. In spite of (and perhaps because of) the hype with which it was launched last year. Google’s Knols were meant to be a challenger to Wikipedia — or an authoritative complement. Wikipedia may have the last laugh on this, its entry on Knols is perhaps more authoritative than Google’s Knol on Wikipedia will ever be. A’knol’ is meant to be a unit of knowledge — Google has many outstanding computer scientists, but it may be leaden when it comes to epistemology.

Merging and Emerging

Lulu, the pioneering self-publishing site, has entered into an alliance with Scribd (news from ReadWriteWeb via Brantley’s Read20 list). This is interesting because they are two of the coolest companies experimenting with user-generated publishing, and their collaboration covers potential weaknesses on each side (Lulu has a better distribution model with a successful track record in actually selling content, Scribd has the more innovative and interesting content platform: Scribd, in case you havent seen it, is aiming to be a YouTube for PDF documents). They both have a strong user-generated content focus and I wonder if they will potentially exhaust the space which lies beneath the attention-span of conventional publishers. I suspect that something quite promising could emerge from this alliance.

Whether or not anything important does emerge depends really on the initiative and the ambitions of the many users who are already dabbling with Scribd and Lulu. That potential to unlock new audience-generated innovation is the attractive and unpredictable part of the ‘alliance’.

Bush on Berlusconi — OK so what would you say?

George W Bush has to apologise because his team produce a background briefing note which says some very rude things about the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi:

[Berlusconi is] “one of the most controversial leaders” of a country “known for governmental corruption and vice”…….. It refers to the Italian prime minister as a man “hated by many but respected by all at least for his bella figura (personal style) and the sheer force of his will”…….. It says Mr Berlusconi was said to be “regarded by many as a political dilettante (amateur) who gained his high office only through use of his considerable influence on the national media”. (from BBC report, Bush sorry over Berlusconi insult)

Apparently the briefing note reproduced in full 4 pages from Gale’s Encyclopedia of World Biography.

The briefing given to White House press corps was lifted, administration officials said, from the Encyclopedia of World Biography, and put in a briefing pack as though it represented the views of the administration. (Guardian)

I guess that the White House would have made several hundred copies of this set of briefing notes and I wonder whether they would have paid any necessary reproduction fees to Gale (part of Cengage).

If the White House press staff have to produce background briefing notes on every rascal that the President might meet they have got a real problem. Perhaps a link to wikipedia would suffice. Mind you the wikipedia entry on Silvio Berlusconi is pretty devastating, though the language is perhaps more neutral. What can an honest briefing note say about Sr Berlusconi? I think the Gale encyclopedist may have the last laugh.

Going Local

Yesterday’s FT had a piece about mapping as an interface to the web. This is one view on why this change is important:

Erik Jorgensen, a senior executive in Microsoft’s online operations, says the software company is building a “digital representation of the globe to a high degree of accuracy” that will bring about “a change in how you think about the internet”. He adds: “We’re very much betting on a paradigm shift. We believe it will be a way that people can socialise, shop and share information.” ‘Way to Go? Mapping to be the Web’s next Big Thing’, Financial Times, 21 May 08

Google, Nokia and others are investing in parallel projects. The article speculates that controlling the geo-interface may put one company in a dominant position. But perhaps that will not happen, in part because their is an open source foundation under construction in OpenStreetMap, Its coverage is improving in Wikipedian fashion (getting better all the time). The current view of Florence is good on the railways and autostrada, but lacking in detail.

As it happens we have started adding geo-tags to our data this week (so we can now render as live links, post codes mentioned in text or advertisements). We will blog about this shortly. As a side note: one guesses that geo-coding will become important to us all for one reason not mentioned in the FT’s article yesterday. But headline news on the front page. Oil goes to $135 a barrel. It is not really a paradox to suggest that we may care more about exactly where we are, as we learn to travel less.