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Monthly Archives: January, 2013

Chrome OS Gains Traction: Is The “Netbook” Really Dead?

Acer reported today that computers running Google’s free Chrome OS accounted for up to ten percent of its US PC shipments since November 13, when the company released its $199 C7 model Chromebook. That’s small in absolute terms, but surprising in light of the nascence of Chrome, as well as the even greater novelty of Chromebooks with the right hardware and design (such as Samsung’s model) for Google’s minimalist operating system. Some have framed the issue as a windfall for OEMs, who now have even more leverage to call out the emperor’s new clothes that is Windows 8, since Chrome represents – at long last – a commercially viable non-Mac alternative to desktop Windows. But I think there are two more pressing questions that the apparent success of Chrome raises:

1) Is Chrome really a “desktop” OS?

2) Does Chrome provide hope for inexpensive laptops to beat back the tide of tablets?

Question 1 seems easy enough to answer on the surface. Chrome doesn’t run any native apps and almost hilariously cordons off your files (the hallmark of all desktop computing for 30 years) in an app called, well, Files. Everything runs side by side in the browser and notifications (Gmail, NYT, Google Talk) for anything come directly to the desktop – I would go so far as to say it dispenses with the very idea of a “browser,” since it is agnostic of the notion of “offline” existence and knows that, anymore, your devices are all doorsteps without a connection. Chrome OS is to the Internet what iOS was/is to file systems – it would rather you just not think about it/them.

And I think that it is this always-online existence – and more specifically, the way in which Chrome takes the Internet for granted – that makes both Chrome and the Chromebook line that runs it a possible foil to the storyline of laptops and especially netbooks completely giving way to mobile devices and tablets. PCs are in a rut for myriad reasons: bad software, price, and inefficiency. Why pay $1000 for an email and Facebook machine, after all? At the other end of the price spectrum, netbooks – cheap, modestly powered laptops running Linux or Windows – have suffered tremendously at the hands of the iPad in particular, which offers basically the same experience but with a better OS. Moreover, the iPad has crushed netbooks because iOS makes it extremely clear exactly what your device can do – your apps are clearly differentiated and displayed in a simple visual interface. What you see is what you get; no complex unfriendly file systems or cumbersome user interfaces.

But iOS, even amid the pain it has exacted on traditional PCs, still clings to the somewhat traditional idea of native apps – in fact, it is (in the user’s eyes) a catalog of native apps tweaked to the OS’s strengths and capabilities. The latter point is important in differentiating the iPad from a netbook – a netbook can theoretically try to run many of the more demanding Windows/Linux apps, but performance is bad, an example of users being given too much freedom which in turn leads to a poor experience. The Chromebook line is by almost any technical standard a “netbook” line. These laptops all use either very simple Intel processors or even ARM chips, have no optical drives, and are extremely cheap, with the C7 in particular available for a basically unmatched price.

But unlike traditional netbooks, the experience is carefully and adroitly managed. All “apps” more or less come from the Chrome Web Store and downloadable executable files are forbidden. An “app” tray simulates a traditional desktop computing environment, but lest you think you’re still in Kansas, note that all browser shortcuts (new tab, new incognito, etc) work directly from said desktop.

Basically, Chrome packages a radical new notion of computing – always online, with the whole Web integrated into or at least in close proximity to your apps – in a highly digestible package, much like iOS did when it debuted. And in doing so, it is redefining what a “netbook” or cheap computer even is and what it can do.  While it can’t compete with smartphones, it could grow into a real competitor most tablets, especially if Google actually makes a Nexus-grade Chromebook and further hybridizes Chrome and Android.

-The ScreenGrab Team

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Pudding Monsters HD

Game: Pudding Monsters HD

Platforms: iOS, Android

Rating: 90%

ZeptoLab has become one of the most recognizable names in mobile app development, thanks to the ubiquitous Cut the Rope, which has become a gaming staple alongside the Angry Birds franchise, Words with Friends, and Draw Something. Now they’re back with another blockbluster, the oxymoronic Pudding Monsters HD (because, after all, what kind of pudding isn’t cute and non-monstrous?). Whereas Cut the Rope focused on slicing cords, ropes, and strings to get a piece of candy into a reptile’s mouth, Pudding Monsters HD is about googly-eyed pieces of red, blue, purple and green pudding who are trying to unite with each other and gobble up stars.

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Three normal red puddings and a slimy green pudding.

Pudding Monsters HD has simple controls – simply slide the puddings around to try and and smash them into each other. A level is considered complete when all the puddings are united into one giant, monstrous pudding. The star squares indicated in the shot above are likely familiar to anyone who has played Cut the Rope – your performance in each level is measured by how many stars you attain. An interesting wrinkle to Pudding Monsters HD’s gameplay, however, is how it only considers you have to “mastered” a level when you have completed it by getting 0, 1, 2, and 3 stars in separate playthrus. For me, this meant playing it thru again and getting 0 or 1 stars on many levels, since I had tried hard to get at least two stars on each level the first time thru.

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Hypnotic purple puddings.

In the style of Angry Birds (but perhaps with better variety and flexibility in terms of the gameplay options it opens up), Pudding Monsters HD gradually grants you access to new puddings with new powers, and to machines/props that can be manipulated in each level.

Red pudding – this is the standard pudding. It has no powers.

Green pudding – these puddings leave behind a slimy trail when slid. Other puddings can be slid onto the trail and have their momentum halted by the slime, meaning that they’ll stick in the location.

Purple puddings – these come in groups. Moving any one of them in a given direction moves all the others in the same direction.

Blue puddings – these puddings are asleep and have to be “woken up” by having puddings of other colors smashed into them.

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A red pudding near some cloning machines.

In addition to the houses, TVs, and coffee cups which create natural barriers to the puddings’ progress, there are also springs which bounce a pudding’s progress back, ice blocks which block progress one time only, and cloning machines which replicate any pudding which passes thru them. The springs and blocks are particularly useful – you must restart any level in which any of your puddings slides off the table, since that sliding makes the creation of the merged pudding monster impossible.

As fun as Pudding Monsters HD is, it’s also perhaps too short and easy. This is perhaps excusable since it’s a new game. ZeptoLab has also promised new levels soon. I’m hoping that they can inflect Pudding Monsters HD with some of the difficulty found in the later stages of Cut the Rope, when trying to even complete a level becomes maddening (but in a good/can’t-wait-to-try-it-again later way).

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Red and blue puddings.

The game is $0.99 USD. Like Cut the Rope, it offers the option of paid upgrades in the form of purchasable “mushrooms” or items that let you create a gigantic pudding monster with no effort, allowing you to capture all the star blocks on the board.

While it can be completed in just an hour or two, this seems like a game with a solid future and plenty of room for expansion and diversification.

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Victory! A merged pudding monster.

-The ScreenGrab Team

 

 

AirDroid

A tweet a while back from The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky, about a “nuts” app called AirDroid, inspired me to try out that same app on my Nexus 4. After experimenting with it over the past week, I’ve come to see it as an invaluable, futuristic utility for device management. It feels like something that Google could easily buy and make into a standard service for all Android devices.

AirDroid allows for very nuanced file management and manipulation of your Android phone, but its setup is dead simple. Download the free Android app and start it up. It gives you a URL and an access code. Once you input the code on the Web, the page transforms into a vaguely Linux-like desktop which mirrors (or reinterprets, more nearly) your phone’s entire file structure. You can see all of your text messages, photos, and contacts, as well as apps and what’s currently on your clipboard.

One of the underrated aspects of the Android platform is how independent it remains from traditional PCs and Macs. There’s no syncing or real need for cables (especially now that devices like the Nexus 4 support inductive charging) and the platform had no equivalent of the bloated desktop iTunes 11. Sure, curious users can explore a device’s file system on their PC via cable, or send an app from the Google Play desktop site to an Android device that is using the same Google Account. But these are fringe features. Most Android users have devices that are PC-agnostic.

The flip side of this agnosticism is Android’s unparalleled openness, which lets it be manipulated at a level that iOS (for instance) all but prevents. AirDroid is perhaps the most polished example of remote Android management, such that I think that it may be worth Google’s while to acquire it and make it a standard Android tool, perhaps even as a Chrome extension that would play nicely with the increasingly chic Chromebook line.

A few useful things about AirDroid:

1. Easy file upload of basically any file format or size, without iTunes’ restrictions on folders etc.

2. Send a URL to your phone for later – sort of a like a mini-Pocket.

3. Easily sideload apps from non-Play sources.

Granted, these are niche use cases that appeal mainly to geeks like me. But they have real value since they create what I think is the first real semblance of a coherent multiscreen experience between Google gadgets in particular – it gives me a robust tool for manipulating my Nexus 4, even from the lightweight Web-only world of my Chromebook. It enriches both gadgets – the Nexus 4 becomes an even more flexible device and repository for all sorts of files, while the Chromebook becomes a management tool while sacrificing none of its minimalist appeal.

Google has already stated that it wants to provide a truly seamless multiscreen experience, but so far this has been difficult due to Android fragmentation and Google’s considerable deficit vis-a-vis Apple when it comes to creating fully integrated hardware/software that just works together, like the Mac and the iPhone via iCloud (imperfect as the latter still is). AirDroid is a sleek, sneaky way of experiencing Android on your desktop and having more control over the inside of your phone, which is so often a total black box. Google should buy it and use it to further integrate the experience they provide, especially now that Google is working directly on hardware with Motorola and postulating that someday Chrome and Android will converge.

App rating: 77%

-The ScreenGrab Team

The Four Horsemen of Tech

Thanks to The Economist and TechCrunch, there is now apparently an elite four in the tech world: Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. These are the companies that will apparently shape the near and medium term future in tech. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has proposed (and rightfully, I think) that Samsung be added as a fifth member.

Nearly any article on this quartet has its contents section overwhelmed by missives about the injustice of Microsoft’s omission from this group. This surprises me. Not because it’s an unreasonable argument but because it gets raised before: “why is Facebook in this group?

Zuckerberg et al are here in the same breadth with the world’s most valuable corporation (Apple), its most prolific mobile software developer (Google), and its preeminent online retailer and cloud provider (Amazon). If you add Samsung, then you get to also include the world largest phone maker. By contrast, Facebook is a website that sells a relatively modest number of ads. Whereas the other players have their fingers in numerous pies and are seeking more and more dominion over digital life, Facebook is essentially playing defense against startups.

By that I mean Facebook’s every move is driven by its obsession with protecting its website, which Business Insider once surmised was perhaps just a latter-day form of webmail, a portal not unlike Yahoo! thru which users would go to check statuses and maybe click some ads. Yahoo! has a multibillion dollar business, but then again, its not often mentioned as one of the elite four of tech.

The last major innovation Facebook made was the News Feed, which was met with comical outrage upon its original release – it is now essentially the best reason for using Facebook. Timeline only rearranged the profile display, while Subscribe was a knee-jerk reaction to Twitter. Meanwhile, products like Questions and Poke tried and failed to compete with Quora and Snapchat, respectively.

Business Insider in its aforementioned story offered that 2013 was make or break for Facebook becoming a hub of music discovery. This seems fair – Facebook has had a long, long time to become a “platform,” but it really has not succeeded except as a means of playing Zynga games or fake slot machines. Facebook is currently more a destination rather than a true portal – it resembles Yahoo! even more in this respect, since the key difference between Yahoo! and Google is that people simply go to Yahoo! to read mail and maybe click a story, then leave, whereas Google is the gateway to the Web

By playing defense all the time, first against Instagram and now against Snapchat, I’m not sure that Facebook has left itself much space to drive into more aggressive forward looking products. Why didn’t they think of a sexting asp first, when Facebook Messenger has over 50 million users? How did the world’s largest photo repository miss the simple social charm of Instagram?

That said, using Facebook is almost a basic necessity for keeping in touch, something that is the envy of every other app in existence. It’s almost as humdrum as email by now, even if its mobile apps are just confusing, overcrowded concoctions (its Android app became tolerable with the introduction of native code, but is still by far the worst-performing app I’ve ever used on my Nexus 4, which is remarkable given all the garbage in Google Play).

But it’s fragile, and it’s still just a website at heart. Think of the massive sea-change that would need to occur for Apple, Amazon, Samsung, or Google to become irrelevant and/or be forced to make an impulse buy of a direct competitor. Facebook may yet graduate to their league, but I think the question isn’t whether Samsung is horseman #5, but whether Facebook should even be horseman #4.

Google+: No Exit

One of the only drawbacks of the Internet is that it dispels the illusion of independent thought. So, naturally, the WSJ ran a story yesterday about the increasingly intrusive advances of Google+, while I struggled to finish what I thought was a novel piece about how Mountain View’s pet social network, while struggling to match Facebook’s user numbers, could, with better execution perhaps, become both a blueprint for a truly cross-Web social experience and a chilling exemplar of how far Google would force our data thru its social portal. Well, I’ll post it anyway.

RE: the Wsj story, MG Siegler has predictably argued that Google +, like Windows 8, is the emperor’s new clothes, a lackluster project that is rarely called out (not true – it received a tongue-lashing from Farhad Manjoo at Slate). It can’t match Twitter in particular when it comes to the levels of engagement and ease of use, despite its nominally huge user base, which, while huge, obviously lags behind Facebook’s. All of this is basically right, but it misses the point because it overlooks how creepy unstoppable Google+ is. The question isn’t whether Google+ is a dud; it’s whether it can be stopped before it changes how the entire Internet works.

Do you use YouTube or Gmail? Chrome? Then get used to Google +. Like its spy movie partner in arms Google Now, it is blazing a trail toward a future (on Android at least, and that’s not nothing, what with Android accounting for 3/4ths of all smartphone activations) where your data is massaged by a free form service that know nothing about the sandboxes that separate apps a la iOS. Where does Google+ start or end? Unlike Facebook – the ultimate walled garden – Google+ is hard to define. It is a comment stream like Reddit, a reader like Flipboard or Currents, a public profile like Facebook, and a surefire steady stream of Gmail notifications if you make any sort of controversial or insightful comment.

What’s more, it is slowly creeping into the basic DNA of Android. The Nexus devices all come with Google+ preloaded, and even Samsung has begun pushing its Jelly Bean updates out with Google+ preloaded, too. Even beyond it becoming one of those dreaded uninstallable “core” apps, Google+ could become less like a traditional “app” and more like a largely unseen OS component that simply grabs info and modifies your social presence/profile. While I think that such a service would be cool, it would also be incredibly creepy

It isn’t clear whether Google+ can be avoided, especially considering how adept Google is at providing Web services. It still far outshines both Apple and Microsoft in this regard, which puts in the position of forcefully bundling its already stellar services with its perhaps less than optimal (so the conventional wisdom goes) social network. Like almost everyone I know, I rarely dabble into Google+, but I have done so more now that I use the Nexus 4 not only as my phone but as my primary computing device along with my Samsung Chromebook. It reminds me of a hybrid of Flipboard and Twitter, with lots of email spam.

That doesn’t sound so appealing, but with Google Glass on the horizon, and with the growth in mobile data speeds allowing for better video/chat apps like Tango, I feel like a truly “real-time” social Web is just around the corner, and Google+, which seems almost creepily designed to be a liaison between different apps, Google-made or not, could be one of its key pivot points. Searching with Google, or using YouTube or Gmail or Chrome or any of its other myriad services, will eventually be synonymous with signing over information and permission to Google+ and the new Web it is trying to create.

-The ScreenGrab Team