Time for another hidden gem column. These columns highlight things that I've found to be relatively little known, yet significantly help one's use of a Linux system.
In this case, the gem isn't even a part of a Linux distribution. It's
not a piece of software, a book or an event. But it can help you find
all three. You see, this hidden gem is a Web site, simply called
Google (or "google dot
com" if you must).
Portals 'R' Us
The Linux world, even more than other corners of the information
super-gridlock, is becoming awash with portals. Red Hat has acquired the
talents of a Web design firm called Atomic Vision, perhaps looking to become a major portal host. VA Linux Systems
(formerly VA Research) bought the rights to linux.com and has turned it
into an active, if perhaps overly busy, portal page. The venerable linux.org site is still popular. And of course I'd be rapped on the knuckles if I didn't mention the ZDNet Linux page.
Heck, we now have companies offering tools that let anyone make their own
portal. The Zope people have released a "portal toolkit", offering a vision of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Linux portals that do pretty much the same thing.
But not Google. Compare the stark simplicity of Google's home page to the
clutter of most current portals. As you can imagine, it takes very little
time to download, even when using a slow Internet link. And it's extremely
friendly to any browser, including the popular Lynx text browser.
And yet, much of what one would want from a portal, whether information
about Linux or anything else on the Web, is available here. Furthermore,
what started as a research project at Stanford University by two PhD students is now a successful commercial venture for them. "There are a number of thesis projects based on it," according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
The project started out under the name "backrub," but was later changed to
Google, a play on the term googol, a number representing ten to the
power of 100. It's an apt target for a site that -- even though I consider
it a hidden gem -- gets a hundred million hits per month, according to Brin.
The penguin's gone
The Linux connection isn't as obvious as it used to be. Before it turned
commercial, Google's logo included the now-familiar Linux penguin. But
Google still runs on Linux and appears to do a better job of offering
search results than alternatives such as ht://Dig. According to Brin,
the searching and sorting technology behind Google makes it more likely to
come up with the pages searchers most want, right at the top of the
search results. While Google finds most of its pages through crawlers making their way throughout the web, the impatient can tell Google
to look for their pages at this URL.
It's not totally fair to compare Google and ht://Dig. ht://Dig is an open
source search engine and Google uses proprietary software that Brin and
his partner Larry Page license to companies such as Netscape and Red Hat.
Still, anyone making their own portal is welcome to point to Google's page
or even put the Google search capability right on their site. Google even
portal masters the code to do it.
For the future, Brin said that Google is looking at other forms of revenue, such as putting a banner ad on the high-volume front page. "We just haven't gotten around to doing the infrastructure needed to do that," he said.
While I hope that banner ads won't detract from the clean look of the Google home page layout, my favorite feature of Google won't be affected.
There's a button on the Google page you don't see on many other search engines, called "I'm feeling lucky." If you enter some criteria and click that button, Google takes you right to the Web page of the first search result.
"We put in that button because Google does such a good job of presenting what people want, and giving them the most useful links right at the front," Brin said. "Very often the first search result is what people are looking for, and that button takes them right there."
Sometimes it doesn't always work as expected. When I did a lucky search
on my last name, it took me to an interview about mental institutions at
www.schizophrenia.com... maybe it's trying to tell me something.
Still, have a look at Google. While it's a great general purpose search
engine, it's especially good at searching for things Linux and Linux-ish.
FAQs, READMEs, HOWTOs, or e-mail discussions, you'll find it all. It's possibly the best search engine on the 'net, and luck has nothing to do with that.
What's your favorite Linux hidden gem? Let us know in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evan Leibovitch has been working with Unix and Linux on PC systems for more than a dozen years. He's a partner in Starnix Inc., a Linux-centric integrator based in Brampton, Ontario. He has been heavily involved in user groups, both as a former director of UniForum Canada and as a current director of the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange. When not around computers, Evan enjoys cooking, writing, and annoying his children.