In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?
Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:
Here’s how to use it:
1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)
2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:
3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:
You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:
These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.
4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):
Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.
A recent thread in /r/AskReddit posed a similar question. The comments were revelatory, with plenty of resigned jokes about the heat death of the universe, antitrust proceedings, and the (unlikely) rise of Bing being the only ways for Mountain View’s best to be bested:
- “The first and most obvious way to cause a decline might be from some sort of anti-monopoly judgement being levied on them causing say for example the search engine portion of google, to be split from the part of google that manages android and chrome.” – /u/icantrecallaccnt
- “The heat death of the universe. Though they’ll probably buy some quirky startup that’s figured out how to reverse entropy and remain in business forever.” – /u/SoresuMakashi
- ‘The Big Bing’ – /u/tenillusions
- “If Chinese mega-sites and portals decide to really take expansion outside of their borders seriously. Baidu, Tencent et al are well on their way.” – /u/Tuxedo_Superman
Granted, there were some thoughtful responses that probed Google’s complacence and ongoing alienation of its important demographics (advertisers, developers – note: not end-users). But I think the issue isn’t so much that Google has gotten fat and happy and turned into Microsoft 2.0 (riding Search, Maps and Gmail the same way Ballmer et al rode Windows XP and Office). Rather, the issue is that Google is desperate.
Odd word choice? Not really – Wired picked up on it recently, too, with the keen observation that the middling Google+ has left Google clinging to ever-declining per-click costs while trying to find something – anything – to help it keep pace with rivals such as Facebook, that, despite having nowhere near Google’s profits, have arguably staked out a better slice of smartphone attention spans. I have often made fun of Facebook for being essentially a channeling of some of the best talents in computer science toward the end of designing hamburger buttons and click-by-accident advertising, but I admit that its new mobile strategy – discrete offerings for messaging, news, etc. – amplifies the threats to Google’s Web-centric business model that have always resided in walled-garden apps.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find much appetite in the mainstream technology media for examining Google’s weaknesses. In contrast, Apple – the world’s most profitable company – is often construed as facing near-constant extinction if it doesn’t, say, release a smart watch in the next two months. The inimitable Horace Dediu succinctly broke down the double standard in his post, “Invulnerable” –
“I suspect the absence of scrutiny comes from Google being seen as an analogy of the Internet itself. We don’t question the survival of the Internet so we don’t question the survival of Google — its backbone, its index, and its pervasive ads which, somehow, keep the lights on. We believe Google is infrastructure. We don’t dwell on whether electric grids are vulnerable, or supplies of fuel, or the weather.”
I would go a step further and say that Google is like a church or a cathedral. That is, it is frequently visited, assumed to be a mainstay of the cultural fabric regardless of external economic conditions and – most importantly – it collects little to no money from any of the end users who interact with it. Sure, parishioners may make a slight donation to the local church, but the real funding comes from other sources; likewise, Joe Surfer doesn’t directly pay Google for anything, with the possible exception of a buck or two for extra Google Drive space or Google Play Music All Access. Hence, the actual business of Google is abstracted from consumers, who end up spending little or no time contemplating how or why it could go belly up – it’s not like they can point to reduced foot traffic or ridiculous clearance sales as harbingers of decline.
The signs are there, though:
-Let’s start with Android. Android was a defensive land grab to stop Microsoft and then Apple from shutting Google out of mobile. It has succeeded in terms of worldwide adoption, but it confers on Google nowhere near the profits that iOS has on Apple. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s symbolic of how Android was never designed from the ground up as a sustainable business but as a vehicle for legacy Google services (there hasn’t been a really great new Google service since Maps in 2005).
As such, Google is always tinkering with Android to make it less like an open source project and more like its own Google service. Peter Bright’s article on forking Android understandably struck a nerve with Google, which is awkwardly trying to maintain Android’s chief competitive advantage (no licensing fees, tons of customization possibilities for OEMs and carriers) while bringing it further under Mountain View’s umbrella.
-One of the best revelations of the ongoing Samsung-Apple legal battle is that Samsung really would like to move on from Android. Samsung isn’t a great leader, but the fact that it would even consider something as nascent as Tizen to take the place of Android on its smartphones lines is telling.
-Google Glass reeks of desperation. Jay Yarow of Business Insider insisted that Google botched Glass’ launch, ensuring that it would never take its apparently rightful place as the successor to the iPad as the next big thing in consumer tech. It’s a computer for the face, with no obvious use case as yet, a crazy price tag, and understandable cultural stigma. Tech media were wrong to puff it up as the Next Big Thing, but consider also the absurdity of this situation: Google is trying to sell a terrible HUD in order to get out ahead of the competition, like Apple did to much better effect with the iPod and then the iPhone.
-It’s not just Glass, either. The Nest acqusition, the Boston Dynamics aquisition, and the obsession with “sci-fi” projects at GoogleX. – Google could be looked at as “shooting for the moon.” Or, it could be viewed instead as desperately trying to find any revenue stream alternative to mobile ads, which just don’t work like desktop ones do and, moreover, are subject to intense competition from social networks and messaging platforms.
-The sci-fi thing merits more attention. Forever ago, I wrote this about Google Glass and its ilk:
“By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?”
Trying to actualize the fantasies of sci-fi is not forward-looking; it is, by definition, backward-looking, with respect to someone’s text or vision about what was possible in the past. If someone created a real Death Star today, it would be impressive – as a testament to madness. Why would someone exert such enormous, concerted effort at recreating a technology conceived for recreational purposes in the 1970s, by individuals who had no idea that smartphones, MP3s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on on would be invented?
To analyze sci-fi is often to analyze what it doesn’t conceive of. I watched Gattaca recently, a 1997 movie with a setting in the far future. What was in this high-tech future? Big, hulking desktop PCs and keyboards. Sci-fi is the product of constrained imagination (“the future is hard to predict” – Captain Obvious), but imitating it is even more self-defeating. For this reason, I am immensely pessimistic about the prospects of any of Google’s top-secret projects being a breakthrough that would expand its business or appeal in meaningful ways. Sci-fi is a small porthole on the future.
-Google’s customers are advertisers and other businesses, not individuals. It reaches the latter by its presence on platforms that belong to the former – think its default search engine deals for Firefox and Safari. There’s not any real competition on those fronts for now – Bing is good but has lithe mindshare, and Yahoo is still locked into its deal with Microsoft. But Marissa Mayer is driven to displace Google on iOS, and Apple and Yahoo have a good relationship (Yahoo provides the data for Weather on iOS, for example). As MG Siegler has pointed out, it seems implausible that Apple would go on subsidizing Google, enabling it to make so much money off of iOS, money that it can channel into Android.
-Once one gets into the “Google isn’t invulnerable” mindset, it’s easy to see everything as a weakness, sometimes without good reason. But think about its efforts to bring Chrome OS apps to mobile devices. Such a tack seems defensive – a way to halt the decline of the Web and keep matters squarely in the realm of JS, HTML and CSS. I’ve often argued that Chrome OS is more of a breakthrough than Android (it has the potential to disrupt both the business model of Windows PCs and the essential appeal of tablets), but it looks like it could turn into just a moat for Google’s existing (and, to be fair, highly profitable, at least for now) Web businesses.
-Google+ has become the DNA of Google services. Its profile system is a way of indexing Internet users. It has succeeded in helping Google collect more nuanced data, even if it hasn’t exactly done much to blunt the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and others. But now that Vic Gundotra is leaving, Google+ looks weirdly quaint – like nothing more than Gundotra’s messy senior project for getting hired by another firm. There are already rumors that the Google+ team will be split up and sent to other projects (in the same way that the Google Reader team was once chopped up to work on Google’s initial forays into social).
Look, Google isn’t going to turn into AOL or Yahoo. But it should be increasingly apparent that Google is not synonymous with the Internet at large, and is not guaranteed to constantly occupy so much mind share.
Google Play Books has received numerous updates in the last few months, including one that added PDF/ePub reading and markup support. This is a welcome change. The default QuickOffice viewer in Chrome for Android isn’t the friendliest or richest way to read PDFs/ePubs, so users who are serious about PDF/ePub reading on Android have probably downloaded a 3rd-party alternative like the free Adobe Reader or the more expansive ezPDF Reader Pro. While the latter app is still good for easy annotation and heavy document manipulation, Play Books is now a nice way to simply read documents on Android, and maybe add some notes and bookmarks as you go (these items are then synced to your Google account, so that they appear on the Web viewer, too).
To get PDFs or ePubs into Play Books, you must use the Google Play desktop site (http://play.google.com). Select “My Books” at the top, and then select “Upload” – it’s that simple. You can pick documents from your local machine or from your Drive.
On your Android device, you can find the books in your library, alongside any purchased or freely downloaded books from Google Play. The interface is similar to reading a book from the Google Play Store – there’s a page slider at the bottom, along with some display options and settings near the top.
The same display filters (like Sepia) for books can also be applied to PDFs and ePubs.
For PDFs that are “flowing text mode” rather than “scanned pages” mode, you can add annotations and notes. Not all PDFs support this feature out of the box, so you may need to do a PDF reflow on them in an app like the aforementioned ezPDF Reader Pro.
I hope that Google eventually makes it easier to open PDFs/ePubs from Gmail or Chrome on Android directly into Play Books. Better reflow and annotation options could also help to simplify the PDF/ePub workflow on Android, even if it would represent yet another incursion by Google upon territory essential to many 3rd-party developers.
You can also use the Android app to pin your uploaded documents for offline reading. Simply tap the 3-dot column on a given document and then tap “Keep on Device.” It works in similar fashion to Google Play Music.
Chrome OS appears to be a hit, thanks to Acer’s workhorse $199 C7 Chromebook and Samsung’s sleek $249 model. Chromebooks are often construed as “companion” devices, meant to supplement a Mac or Windows laptop/desktop, but in my experience they feel more like companions to a tablet/phone. Their modest power, stripped-down OS, and rich ecosystems make them much like a traditional computer influxed with cutting-edge mobile-informed software.
That said, transitioning from a traditional Mac/Windows machine to a Chromebook can be jarring. After all, you can’t install any native apps, and you have to run nearly everything thru the Web browser, all the while being conscious of the machine’s limited power. Here are some tips for getting started:
1. Samsung or bust
The variety of Chromebook models is diversifying, with both Lenovo and HP now getting into the game. The trend is sure to accelerate now that OEMs seem increasingly skeptical of Windows 8.
The $249 Samsung Chromebook is currently the best value on the market. It has a sleek, much-more-expensive-than-it-looks body, and it runs totally silent and cool. Its custom ARM processor is power-efficient and gives you up to seven hours of battery life. It can also support a 3G connection. It escapes the cheap netbook look that plagues the Acer C7 and it’s lighter and better performing that the heavier Samsung 550. While HP’s Pavilion Chromebook is still to be released, its heavy body (replete with Ethernet port) and power-hungry Intel processor don’t inspire confidence.
2. Consider an Ethernet-to-USB dongle
While wifi is more than enough for more uses of the Chromebook – I enjoy playing Pandora One while cooking or exercising, or using it while watching TV -, power users may also want to think about an Ethernet-to-USB dongle for the Samsung Chromebook, which doesn’t have a native Ethernet port. The cabled connection is great for more intensive productivity tasks, such as using Google Drive/Docs or uploading/editing photos, since it gives a nice speed boost to the machine’s modest guts.
3. Customize your dock
While Chrome OS only runs Web apps (with the exception of the browser itself and the file manager), it still offers a comforting desktop metaphor that makes launching apps easy. Filling the dock with icons gives you quick access to full Web apps like Evernote or Tweetdeck, or to your favorite sties, such as the New York Times (optimized for Chrome) or Phandroid.
4. Use the Search key
Chromebooks feature a novel Search key which is a great productivity enhancer. It searches all apps and files on your machine, in addition to a standard Google search.
5. Find equivalents for your Mac/PC apps – they’re out there
I often hear that Chromebooks “can’t do anything” and aren’t serious laptops. This may be true if you’re a hardcore gamer or Wall Street analyst, but otherwise a Chromebook can do almost anything a casual user or student might need to, using apps from the rich Chrome Web Store:
Productivity – Evernote, Google Drive, Write Space, and the excellent Drive-integrated Scratchpad can perform almost any writing or blogging functions
Music – Pandora and Google Play Music both run flawlessly in the browser (and can be stored in the dock), and things should get even better soon once Spotify pushes out its Web app.
Video – Hulu, Internet TV, and YouTube are some of the choice options here.
-The ScreenGrab Team
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