Imaging: There's no escape

Google has become the number one place to go for information on the Web, but watch out - it could be about to take over your digital life.

Everywhere I've looked in the past few months, I seem to have run into a Google product. It all started innocently enough six weeks ago, when I picked up a Gmail beta account with a hefty gigabyte of storage space.

At about the same time, I finally got round to updating my Weblog, which had been gathering online dust since last February. After dithering over a few swanky blog-authoring tools, I remembered that I already had a Blogger.com account.

Blogger can't claim to be the best authoring interface, but it's flexible, free and does everything I need. I had started happily posting when I remembered that both Gmail and Blogger are products of the same company: Google.

Fruitful searching

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I found myself undertaking yet another fickle search for the perfect media database - using Google, of course. I stumbled on Picasa (which we've included on this month's cover CD, or you can download it from www.picasa.com), an intuitive digital photo organiser. Launch it and the program scans your hard drive, automatically organising every picture you have into a series of albums. I was immediately smitten.

Picasa's image-editing abilities aren't overwhelming, but they're functional. Aside from a standard red-eye correction tool, you can enhance pictures surprisingly effectively and crop them to standard photo sizes with a single click. It's also good at getting rid of the washed-out look that affects many digital images.

But what really sold the program to me was its ease of use. With the main window divided into View and Album panes, I can see my photo collection quickly and easily. To adjust the size of the displayed thumbnails I only have to drag a single slider. And I love the Picture Tray, which sits underneath the View pane and lets me collate photos from albums before printing, e-mailing or exporting.

Nobody's perfect

Picasa is not perfect and I still rely on IrfanView (www.irfanview.com or on the cover CD) to batch edit photos. And, although its resemblance to iPhoto is uncanny, unlike Apple's program there's no ability to grade your snapshots or create smart albums - so you can't automatically gather into a single, updating folder every good photo taken of your dog in the past year.

You can't burn photo CDs in the way you can with the likes of ACDSee; in fact archiving from Picasa is implausibly difficult. Nor can you catalogue QuickTime movies, a daft omission given that most digital cameras save movies in this format. And as Picasa is a US product, its online printing service appears to be useless on this side of the pond.

Despite this long list of limitations, Picasa is still my PC image-management tool of choice, simply because I enjoy using it. I'd happily pay the $US30 it used to cost, but the program's developers have been bought out and it's now free. Picasa's purchaser? None other than Google. This is getting spooky.

Hello there

Last week I got around to exploring Picasa's - and therefore Google's - sister product, Hello (www.hello.com). It's a good-looking online photo-sharing and chat program that works as a Picasa plug-in, so you can drag photos onto your Picture Tray and share them in a click of a button. I've also discovered Hello's Bloggerbot feature. Bloggerbot is a dummy online friend. Send a photo to it and it's uploaded automatically to your Blogger blog, dated, captioned and automatically resized. It's an excellent way of keeping a blog up to date - especially as Blogger members get free image hosting.

Google's generosity in offering us e-mail, file-storage, blogging, photo-management and sharing applications is impressive, but there's a reason for it. GMail's inline adverts, which reflect the content of e-mail are a hint of the future. One day, will a Hello photo-sharing session be peppered with Google's AdSense buttons reflecting the online discussion? Time will tell, but I wouldn't bet against it.

Eventually Google may have full control of my digital life. The strange thing is that I don't feel as bad about this as I really ought to.

Click here to see a screen shot of Google's Hello application, which lets you upload photos directly to an online blog.

Click here to see a screen shot of Picasa's intuitive interface, which makes organising your photos easy.

Click here to see a screen shot of uploaded images that can automatically be resized in Bloggerbot.

RAW deal

We can all breathe a sigh of relief. RAW, the image format popular in high-end digital cameras, may never be the same again.

Taking pictures in RAW format has always been a good idea in principle but dreadful in practice. RAW's selling point is that it stores every bit of data untouched - the nearest thing a digital camera will ever get to a film negative. By contrast, most consumer cameras store images in the JPEG format, where every picture you take is slightly degraded.

Although RAW holds great promise for archiving, its specifications were never shared publicly, so every camera manufacturer saw fit to choose what they thought the format should be. The result: dozens of competing formats, with no image editor that could safely cope with them all. It defeated the principle of archiving.

Now Adobe is offering Digital Negative (DNG), which it claims is a single, open-standard RAW format. We'll have to wait a few months to gauge its success, but if uptake from camera manufacturers is good - and it should be, because Adobe says DNG will be available publicly - no longer will digital camera purchasers have to double check that they can open RAW files in Photoshop. And that can only be a good thing.

TOM GORHAM is a technology journalist and author who has been enthusing about multimedia and design for more than a decade, even when nobody was taking any notice.

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