Google acquires ITA: the search for bargain airline deals is about to get even easier

You’re an avid traveler, right? Sure, why else would you be reading this? Chances are that you’ve spent some quality time at either Kayak, Airfare Watchdog, Bing Travel or one of the many other niche ticketing sites in search of deals over the past few months. To that end, you’ve probably spent next to no time at Google searching for the same thing. But the obvious question is this: “why not?”

That’s a question that has obviously been bugging Google, which is a master of all things search in most every other category. For whatever reason, Google has allowed a number of other, typically smaller competing sites to grow their user base without any interference. But if Google’s so great at finding images via keyword, remedies to your strange medical conditions or more details on that vehicle you’ve been meaning to investigate, why can’t it do the same for travel?

Enter ITA Software, a Cambridge-based software firm that was born from an idea within the minds of a few bright computer scientists from MIT. Currently, the outfit is home to a highly advanced QPX software tool for organizing flight information, which is used by leading airlines and travel distributors worldwide including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Bing, Continental Airlines, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Southwest Airlines, TripAdvisor, United Airlines, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways and others. Moreover, it’s now offering a completely new airline passenger reservation system to improve the customer experience. And as of today, the company is an integral part of Google…
Google has ponied up $700 million in order to acquire ITA and turn the tables in the online ticket search business, but what’s most interesting here is that there’s a good chance the resulting search engine will not only do its own thing, but also bring in results from your existing favorites (Kayak, for instance). In a way, it’ll be the ultimate airline ticket search engine, pulling information from every nook and cranny available and organizing it in a way that the Average Joe or Jane can fully understand and take action on.

Once the acquisition is complete, Google aims to “make it easier for you to search for flights, compare flight options and prices and get you quickly to a site where you can buy your ticket.” It’s important to note that much like Kayak, Google won’t actually be selling you an airline ticket directly; it’ll simply be providing the access to buy one. Still, this all sounds like a huge win for consumers who are tired of crawling three different airline search engines to get a somewhat comprehensive look at their options, and we personally can’t wait for this marriage to officially bear fruit.

[Source: Google]

Fluenz – Language learning for grownups

Look for the red box.So many language programs boast their superiority by claiming they teach you the same way you learned your native language as a child. Not Fluenz.

“Up until now, people have been limited to the ‘see a picture, memorize the word’ language programs that teach adults as if they were children. But, adults learn differently from children,” says Carlos Lizarralde, co-founder of Fluenz. “That’s why Fluenz f² introduces a tutor who incorporates the user’s knowledge of English grammar and syntax as leverage for reaching fluency in the shortest time possible.” Part of what Fluenz advocates is using a student’s native language to their advantage; emphasizing similarities in Romance languages and grammatical similarities with Chinese, for example. That makes sense to me.

Having had some good luck with Rosetta Stone’s intuitive, yet far more expensive TOTALe program, I decided to put this theory to the test. I opted for French, a language several people I know can speak — that way, they can tell me how I sound. I also have some experience learning French, so I figure I can make a fair assessment of how the lessons are structured.The first tool with which Fluenz bestows you when you open your shiny red box is Fluenz Podcast access. The Podcasts are currently offered in Mandarin, Spanish and French. While I think it’s a good idea to have the sounds of your language of choice in your ear, I’m not sure how much one can actually benefit from just hearing another language. I’m pretty good at tuning out English podcasts, let alone French. Skeptical, I downloaded French 1. It included peripheral vocabulary and pronunciation tips from two speakers having a conversation. I can’t see myself truly listening to this unless I was desperate, but it would be helpful for people who want to immerse themselves as much as possible. You could put it on in the car on the way to work, or your iPod on the train (though on the train, I wouldn’t recommend repeating the words out loud).

Digging deeper into my Fluenz materials, I found a handy little pocket guide of 100 or so essentials like “Hello” (but by the way, if you’re an adult who doesn’t know how to say “Hello” in French, no one can help you) and “I need a lawyer.”

Next in the box was a lesson guide. To get going, I popped the DVD Rom disc into my MacBook and double clicked the .osx file. It wouldn’t launch. I tried several avenues and eventually succeeded with a simple reboot — maybe that was only a glitch for me, but in case it wasn’t; rebooting worked.

A teacher appeared on the screen to introduce the lessons. She was very clear, and made good sense. She encouraged students to learn in whatever way best suited them — to watch a dialogue with subtitles or without. This way, you can choose whether to learn the sounds first or the meaning first. Also, you can skip ahead if you feel you’re already comfortable with some basics.

One thing I found useful was that you were able to return to wherever in the lesson you were if you happened to quit to check your e-mail. The program takes awhile to launch, though, so it’s best not to try and multitask.

Realizing there was no way I could take the lesson without devoting my full attention to it, I dove fully into Lesson One. It took me about 2 hours to complete. The pretty, well-spoken teacher was so friendly and clear that sometimes I wanted to scream at her for being condescending, but I think that’s just my own impatience with sitting still in front of my computer and not checking e-mail. In Rosetta Stone, you are constantly engaged by clicking through pictures, whereas in Fluenz, there are stretches where you just need to hang tight and listen (and repeat).

As I relaxed and accepted I was just going to have to learn like I would in a class, and as she explained in detail the pronunciation, meaning, and grammatical abilities of each word, I started to have a really good time. This program makes Rosetta Stone seem like silly games for children. It’s a fun way to learn, but I think Fluenz is right: I’m not a child, and I can learn faster if you teach me like an adult.

By the end of Lesson One, I was listening and typing words in (and spelling them correctly), speaking phrases into my built-in computer microphone and playing them back alongside the pre-recorded phrases to check how I sound, and using “est-ce que” question structure like a champ. The lesson closed with a video pat-on-the-back from my nice teacher and a promise that after the next lesson, I’d have more verbs and nouns and be able to carry on basic conversations from Canada to Marseille.

For anyone who can truly drop everything for a couple of hours per day to learn a language, I would recommend Fluenz. It doesn’t require internet, so you can use it anywhere (like, you could take it with you to Africa and not worry about whether you’ll have WiFi), and at $210 for Unit One (I only completed Lesson One, there are 30 in Unit One), Fluenz f2 is a terrific value — much cheaper than a lot of the alternatives. I give Fluenz an A+ for bringing language-teaching back to what works, and not trying to find some fancy way to “trick” me into learning. Look for the red box.

Microsoft and Travelport Make Travel Services Dream Team

Microsoft has collaborated with the travel technology company Travelport before. The two giants of their respective industries teamed up to create the pricing system that was first used on Expedia and is now used by all of Travelport’s clients. Think Microsoft’s profit power has been impressive for the past couple of decades? What about Travelport? The company flies below the radar in terms of brand recognition, but their searching and processing services are used by more than 63,000 travel agencies per day.

A new deal inked by Microsoft and Travelport would expand the alliance. The two giants would work on a comprehensive set of tools and services for travelers, travel agencies and internet ticket booking sites. Theoretically, at this point anyway, the development of better price searching technology could lead to lower travel costs for travelers and more chances for profit from travel agencies.

Microsoft exec Geoff Cairns had big things to sat about the relationship with Travelport:
“In bringing together Microsoft’s rich, interactive technologies with Travelport’s deep marketplace of travel content and informed choice, we are creating a completely innovative solution for the travel industry. This will improve the traveller experience with a new level of personalization and change how suppliers, TMCs, and OTAs reach travellers.” Too good to be true? Time will tell.

Spring photography roundup

Travel photography enthusiasts will be pleased to hear about the flurry of recent product launches and news floating around the web. Perhaps everything was timed to the warm weather and extra daylight of Spring? Those tricky camera manufacturers – how diabolical. Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more interesting news.

Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LZ10

Engadget has the scoop on Panasonic’s new 10-megapixel Lumix DMC-LZ10. I’m not the biggest fan of Panasonic’s digital cameras, but Engadget and Photography Blog both give it high marks, calling it “one of the most versatile compacts in its class.” They were particularly impressed with the camera’s manual controls and image quality. Considering it retails for less than $250, it could be a nice model to snap up for those family vacation photos. Remember, if you’re in the market for a point and shoot digital camera, don’t get too caught up with the number of megapixels. A better optical zoom and a quick startup/shutter speed are much better indicators of quality.

Hacking your Canon digital camera

Enterprising Canon camera owners should also head over to Wired, where they’re offering a cool Wiki on how to modify your camera’s software. Why would you do such a thing, you might ask? Because digital camera hardware can often do much more than is allowed by its standard software. For instance, Canon only allows shutter speeds up to 1/1,600 of a second, but the camera is actually capable of up to 1/60,000! Once you’ve installed the hack, you’ll unlock all manner of cool functions like super-long exposure shots, RAW file format and battery readout. I tried it last night on my Canon SD630 and it worked like a charm. It’s worth noting that the process can get a bit technical – make sure you know what you’re doing and that you have a compatible Canon camera before giving it a try. Jump over to Wired for full instructions and FAQ.

The Ultra-fast Casio Exilim EX-F1 SLR

Meanwhile, New York Times gadget guru David Pogue reviews Casio’s speedy new semipro Exilim EX-F1 digital camera. A typical digital camera snaps about one picture per second, but the Exilim, which is billed as the world’s fastest camera, can take up to sixty. Remember that shot of the cheetah chasing the antelope you missed on safari because you couldn’t get your camera snapping in time? This is the model you’re looking for. It also has a motion detector which will wait, for hours if necessary, until motion is detected and then automatically snap a rapid fire of 60 shots. Pretty awesome. The Exilim retails for $1,000.

Photology: finding photos made easy (and win a free copy, too!)

For someone like me, who keeps downloading travel photos onto my computer in multiple folders, all named “to sort 1”, “to sort 2”, “to sort 37” etc, and of course, never gets down to sorting any of them, and then can never find any photos when needed — Photology is a God send.

It’s a brilliant piece of software that, once installed, can find any photo you want, based on almost any detail you can remember. The detail could be something as simple as the color in the photo, the time/date you took it, or whether the photo has faces, sky, flowers or beach in it. Essentially, the program can determine the content of your photos and filter them accordingly so that you can find the one you want with the minimum amount of time and energy. Isn’t that cool!?

We’ve got a handful of licenses for Photology that we’ll be giving away after the write-up. Read through to find out how you can get your hands on one!

I thought trying out this program would be a good way to find a few photos I seem to have lost forever, and maybe even attempt to organize them in some way.

As soon as you install the Photology software, it scans the default folders on your computer that contain photos. It also gives you the opportunity to add or delete folders, in case there are some you don’t want it to search through, or if you want to add some from an external drive.

Once installed, it opens a full-screen that displays all your photos — that’s when I realized I have 1158 unsorted (*GASP*) photos on my computer! My plans of attempting to sort them have just been thrown out of the window. Besides, with this program, I really might never have to! Never having to worry about setting those excruciating hours aside to sort all your photos is such a relief!

The program finds them in groups, so for example if I want to show a friend all my photos from my Formentera trip in May 2006, all I need to do is search for May 2006 and they will all come up — along with the other stuff I did in May 2006 of course, but who cares about those few extra photos.

I think it’s pretty smart that it can identify photos by date, but I’m assuming it identifies them based on the date you put them onto your computer rather than the date you shot them. (Photos are timestamped when the photo is taken. See: exif –Ed.) As a person who waits till her camera memory card is full before she puts the photos onto her computer, this could be a problem for me. BUT, if I have this program, and just to avoid sorting them later, I would make the effort to empty my camera monthly.

What’s also cool, is that you can keep narrowing your search basis certain criteria, depending on what you want to find. For example: I can search for all my beach photos, then narrow it down to the ones taken in the day, then to ones which also have people in them, to ones from June 2007.

Another thing that will actually make you use this program is that it is extremely intuitive and easy to use. You don’t have to read a million instructions — just open the program and play with it for 5-minutes and voila you will be using it to its full efficiency! AND…although it took a while to install on my computer, the search is pretty fast, and what I was pleasantly surprised about was that in the process of handling so many photos at once, it doesn’t make your computer freeze or crash.

The program also offers photo-editing tools, built-in upload to Flickr, and easy photo web-sharing facilities.

The website is quite explanatory and tells you how to use it very clearly through video and screen cast tutorials. It only costs US$39, and can be bought off the website. If you are in two minds, download the trial version and you will know immediately whether you want it or not.

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Are you ready to score a copy of Photology free-of-charge? Follow these instructions below, and the first 50 people will get an early Christmas present.

  1. Make sure your system meets the minimum requirements:
    1. Windows XP SP2 or Vista
    2. 512 MB RAM
    3. 2 GHz processor
    4. 500MB avail. hard disk space
    5. 1024×768 screen resolution
    6. High color, 32-bit display
  2. Go to http://promo.getphotology.com (will redirect to http://promo.enoetic.nl)
  3. Fill in the form
    1. First name, last name
    2. Email
    3. Confirm email
    4. Promo code = F3EB8708
  4. A license key will be emailed to you.
  5. Note that even if you miss out on the promo (limited to the first 50 signups), they can try out Photology for 14 days for free.

Have fun!