Thoughts on Google’s Chrome OS

A Google Cr-48 Chrome OS Notebook on fireIn his post: Network as Computer – Part 1, Dillon Hawkins detailed some of the history and concepts behind thin client computing. In Part 2, Dillon shared his impressions of Google’s implementation of the thin client model, called Chrome OS. This post is intended to provide an additional voice and — in some cases — an alternate perspective.

I, like Dillon, happened to be one of the lucky testers to receive a Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook. I was super excited for it and ready to get started. I booted it up, synced my bookmarks and was ready to go. The whole process only took a few minutes and I felt like I was home, everything was in its place. This speaks more to the power of the Chrome browser and the syncing technology that Google has built. This same technology, or at least the spirit of syncing, has really picked up in the last few years. In my mind, “network as computer” now relies less on a specific device but on a set of services that allow multiple devices to access the same personalized information.

While Chrome OS seemed to me a very ambitious idea when it was first announced, it has — in my opinion — taken a back seat to the Android operating system and the latest and greatest from Apple. The iPad and the recently upgraded iPad 2, has completely challenged opinions of what is possible without a full-fledged desktop computer. Netbooks helped pave the way, but they were easily crowded out by more advanced mobile phones and more compact laptops. Netbooks also gained traction over the last two to three years due to their low price and compact size. These cheap, underpowered devices offered an easy way for people to get online. Their low-power processors and budget hardware didn’t allow for much more than web surfing and light office work. For this reason, they were easily replaced by a somewhat lesser device (no physical keyboard, no camera, no real input or expandable storage options) that allowed users to do more than what they had previously thought possible.

Google's Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook

Getting back to the Chrome OS notebook: I used it for a few days to catch up on RSS feeds, Twitter and Facebook, and watch a few YouTube videos. It is more than adequate at those tasks, but so is my Android phone. The lack of a Silverlight plugin prevented me from watching Netflix, but that’s what my TV + Xbox are for. My wife needed a computer to use while we were watching TV and I needed to use my real laptop for development, the Cr-48 was perfect for her. She needed access to Facebook, Google Reader, Blogger, etc. the Chrome OS notebook excels at those things. She has become the primary user of the “spy laptop,” as we call it, due to its matte black soft-touch finish with no markings. I had converted her to the way of Google Chrome a few months back, so she too was up and running with all of her bookmarks and settings within minutes. Life was good for the Chrome OS notebook, it got a solid few months of almost daily use from her, until she got an Android phone. It still gets fired up every few days for “normal” web browsing that doesn’t look so good on a small screen, but it has taken a serious back seat. I would probably use it more if I wasn’t always working on side-projects where I need real power and a non-browser-based IDE. I tried using it to teach lessons at church, but my phone proved more convenient, mostly due to its always-on internet connection. While the Cr-48 is limited to 100 MB of free 3G data each month.

Now, I’m not trying to make this post about how awful and inadequate the Cr-48 is, it is more than adequate at web browsing and has a long-lasting battery. It excels at those two points and I’m sure future devices will have faster processors and better trackpads, but the hardware itself doesn’t matter. Google has even released videos of them destroying poor helpless Cr-48s to illustrate that the device is not important because your data lives “in the cloud.”

If the device is destroyed, you don’t lose your data, just the mangled hunk of metal, plastic and silicon. I received a new laptop at work a few months ago — my third since starting — I had the easiest time setting it up and getting ready to start working. My work documents were stored in my company’s personal network space, my personal files were stored in Dropbox, Chrome synced up within a few minutes and I was ready to go, if it wasn’t for the increased processor speed and physical size difference I wouldn’t know I was on a different machine. It was amazing to me how little I needed to install or copy over to be comfortable and ready to work. The hardware doesn’t matter.

From what I’ve seen over the last year, I’d say that Chrome OS doesn’t have a chance up against the likes of Android, iOS, Mac or even Windows as a viable replacement for a fully-capable phone, laptop, or tablet. I love Chrome as a browser and really like the speed at which they are iterating and making it better. Hopefully soon, once the HTML5 spec has figured out its offline storage standard, we’ll be able to use a browser when not connected to a network.

Popular web based apps like Google Maps, YouTube and Angry BirdsAs more things migrate to the cloud such as, Amazon’s CloudPlayer, Dropbox, Google Docs etc. the device I use is less important. The collaborating, and therefore syncing that goes on behind the scenes, makes these services leaps and bounds better than their desktop counterparts. Google’s introduction of Cloud Print with Chrome OS, Android, and iOS has eliminated one of the last hurdles to adopting thin client computing. Thin client computing isn’t a future dream that we have, it is here today. The network is the computer, the future is now.

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Donate to Japanese Disaster Relief

cracked HinomaruAs you undoubtedly know by now, Japan is reeling from the March 11th earthquake and the resulting tsunami. The scale of this disaster is staggering, as is the estimated death toll. Such events always make the world seem like a smaller place; and we have neighbors in need.

If you’d like to help, I urge you to take action. Two options immediately come to mind. You might search for an opportunity to volunteer at a local organization and provide hands to prepare care packages or other relief supplies. Of course, you can donate money to the American Red Cross or another organization that is contributing to relief efforts.

For other resources related to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Google’s crisis response page is a great place to start.

I’m always inspired by the kindness, generosity and influence that is leveraged on behalf of complete strangers in times of urgency. Thank you, for the difference you make; for the good that you do.

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Introductions Are in Order

Engineers Week 2011: February 20-26This year’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day is almost here! A part of annual National Engineers Week activities, Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day will mark its tenth year on Thursday, February 24, 2011.

From the National Engineers Week web site:

For the past ten years, women engineers have introduced more than one million girls and young women to engineering. More than just one day, Introduce a Girl to Engineering is a national movement that shows girls how creative and collaborative engineering is and how engineers are changing our world.

We can’t wait to see how all you engineers, educators and parents will join us this year in taking time to introduce girls and young women to engineering. I’ve long believed — and stated before — that it isn’t simply that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) career paths; but that to improve life and stay competitive, America desperately needs the insight, talent and skill that this next generation of young women have to offer.

Consider this a challenge to participate! Visit Engineer Your Life and Engineer Girl to find interesting ways to introduce a girl or young woman in your life to engineering. Whether you need a little help, or just want to share with us the creative things you come up with for Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, please be sure contact us so we can learn more about the girls and young women who inspire you.

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Useful Innovation or Dirty Cheat?

Someone cheating on a testA fascinating article written by Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land provides great detail about accusations made by Google that Microsoft’s Bing is cheating and copying Google search results.

In a nutshell: Microsoft Bing uses data captured by the Suggested Sites feature in Internet Explorer and/or the Bing Toolbar to provide and rank search results on Bing. This in itself isn’t the issue — unless you’re an IE or Bing Toolbar user and didn’t previously realize what you’d opted in to. At issue are the experiments that Google conducted that they say prove that Bing is not simply using the collected data to inform their site indexing process; but instead establish that Bing is actually copying Google search results and displaying them as their own.

The Bing team’s response to Google’s accusations frames the process taking place as a crowdsource/clickstream hybrid instead of a straight-up copy operation; and I’ll bet Bing hasn’t limited their efforts to Google — search engines, even. Best-case scenario for Bing’s reputation: They’ve been factoring all browsing activity that users have permitted in Bing’s own site indexing and ranking logic, and anonymizing the data prior to acquisition. If this is the case, users have agreed to play a part; and one could reasonably argue that Bing is simply trying to serve those users well by using unconventional means to improve the experience of using their product.

As a developer and a user, I find myself sympathizing with Google’s position that Bing is doing something it shouldn’t. If Bing has in fact, targeted Google as a source for content and page rank, then it begs one to ask a few questions. If users can depend on Google to find the same content, is Bing really providing value? If Yahoo was willing to ink a deal with Bing prior to publishing Bing results on Yahoo properties, doesn’t it suggest that Bing should be willing to treat Google search results as something deserving valuation and requiring permission for use? Are search results on Bing — or by proxy, Yahoo — really the result of Google’s tech often enough to characterize Bing’s actions as stealing instead of competing?

If Bing is simply leveraging permitted, aggregated user behavior to benefit its users, I’ll probably file this episode away as a non-issue. If instead, Bing is cheating and stealing from Google, Bing deserves every bit of criticism and consequence it has coming.

Update – 2/7/2011: In a follow-up article on February 4, 2011, Bing: Why Google’s Wrong In Its Accusations, Danny Sullivan recounts his discussions with Bing’s Harry Shum and Stefan Weitz following the publication of the February 1st article discussed above. While Mr. Sullivan seems to give Bing a fair hearing, his conclusions are ambiguous. From my perspective, the account of Google’s accusations continues to move toward the “non-issue” category I discussed last week. Through Mr. Sullivan’s articles, we may have learned more about novel techniques search engines are using to provide relevant results, but we also witnessed over-eagerness result in a catalyst for sensationalism.

I wasn’t surprised by the techniques being employed by Bing, I wasn’t surprised that Google took issue with them, and I’m not surprised by Bing’s response. I was surprised however, that Mr. Sullivan decided to publish his first article without including the kind of detail he provided in the second. Until I hear otherwise, I’ll afford Mr. Sullivan the benefit of the doubt and assume that he made an effort to get a response from Bing, and details were not forthcoming.

Tact, discretion and balance are important components of journalism and blogging; and if they were underutilized in this case, we — journalists and bloggers alike — should all use this example to remind ourselves to stay disciplined.

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Reasons to Celebrate

As you can imagine, we were pleased that President Obama dedicated some time during the State of the Union Address to focus on the challenges faced by small business, the need for affordable broadband access in rural America, to make a call for new ideas to improve America’s education system, and to promote making tech innovation a national priority. However, speeches are just talk.

While we hope to see the talk turn to leadership and debate that results in progress, there was something else about the State of the Union Address that had us cheering: the good people chosen to attend the event as guests of First Lady Michelle Obama. I’d like to take a moment to focus specifically on the four young students — one of whom is from right here in Phoenix — invited as recognition of their achievements in science and engineering. Some of these students attended the first White House Science Fair late last year, where they met with, and demonstrated projects to Nobel Laureates, celebrities and the President.

The White House Science Fair is a fantastic showcase of what young Americans are capable of. I hope it becomes a tradition that helps to motivate people — young and old alike — to participate in science and engineering endeavors, and to pursue careers in fields that will drive a new American reality.

The four students in attendance at the State of the Union Address each won various competitions or science fairs with unique projects that demonstrate their inventiveness and capacity for hard work. The results of their projects have the potential to change our world for the better, and the creativity and intellect that was leveraged to drive these innovations is simply stunning.

The White House web site provides some great insight to each of these young Americans:

Amy Chyao (Richardson, TX)Amy [Chyao], a sixteen-year-old high school junior from Richardson, Texas, has developed a photosensitizer for photodynamic therapy (PDT), an emerging cancer treatment which uses light energy to activate a drug that kills cancer cells. After her freshman year biology class, Amy became interested in cancer research and came up with an idea for improving the way medicine is designed. So over her summer vacation she taught herself some basic chemistry and began her research. With her work, Amy won the first place Gordon E. Moore Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a program of Society for Science & the Public, in May 2010. Since taking home the top prize at the Intel science fair, she and her teacher have received inquiries from researchers who are actually implementing the therapy and are interested in her work. Amy, whose parents came here from China, is also a cellist and tutors younger children in her spare time. Amy met the President at the October 2010 White House Science Fair.

Brandon Ford (Philadelphia, PA)Brandon [Ford], a junior at West Philadelphia High School, is a leader of the West Philly Hybrid X Team which includes students from an after school program at the West Philadelphia High School Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering. West Philadelphia is a public high school serving one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Brandon and the Hybrid X team recently entered two cars in the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition, a global challenge that sought to deliver production-ready highly fuel efficient vehicles. As high school students, they successfully went head to head with corporations, universities and other well-funded organizations from around the world, even advancing to an elimination round with their Ford Focus that got an official 65.1 MPGe. Brandon is also one of a group of students who entered the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Awards with their proposal for an Electric Very Light Car. He and 4 other students spent many hours writing the proposal and graphic for the contest. Brandon is a dedicated and hard working team member; for example, last week he worked with the team Tuesday, Thursday, all day Saturday, and then on Sunday participated with the team in a MLK Day of Service activity. He also plays varsity football for West Philadelphia High School. Brandon and the West Philly Hybrid X team attended the President’s September 2010 “Change the Equation” event.

Mikayla Nelson (Billings, MT)Mikayla Nelson is currently a freshman at Central Catholic High School in Billings, Montana. As a middle schooler at Will James Middle School, she led her Science Bowl team to a 1st place finish at the National Science Bowl for the design document of their solar car. They also won 5th place in the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Junior Solar Sprint. In addition to excelling academically, Mikayla is taking flying lessons in hopes of attaining her pilot’s license, is building a 1932 Pietenpol Sky Scout airplane, runs her own birdhouse business, and is restoring a 1967 VW Beetle . She also works at a local hobby store to help cover the cost of her school tuition. Mikayla is working towards acceptance at the United State Air Force Academy where she hopes to major in mechanical engineering. Mikayla met the President at the October 2010 White House Science Fair where she represented her Science Bowl team and exhibited their solar car.

Diego Vasquez (Phoenix, AZ)Diego Vasquez, currently a freshman at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, was a member of the 12 person team from Cesar Chavez High School in Laveen, Arizona that won a grant through the Lemelson-MIT Program’s InvenTeams initiative for their design of a fully adjustable motorized chair for medically fragile individuals. The team decided to design the chair, which is to be used primarily for physical therapy, after seeing a disabled friend and fellow student struggle at school. The students and their families held a tamale “bake sale” so that the entire team could travel to MIT to attend EurekaFest, the Lemelson-MIT Program’s annual celebration of invention. For many members of the team, flying to Eurekafest was their first time on a plane. Diego hopes to become an aerospace engineer. Diego met the President at the October 2010 White House Science Fair where he represented his team and demonstrated their chair.

I can’t imagine how the achievements made, and the potential shown by these young people can result in anything but optimism. Personally, I can’t wait for opportunities to work with people of this generation and to witness some of the wonderful ideas and inventions that they’ll bring us.

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