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
Game: Pudding Monsters HD
Platforms: iOS, Android
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
-The ScreenGrab Team
The Microsoft Surface Pro finally has a release date and price. On Feb. 9, it goes on sale for $899 in the US and Canada. Like its predecessor and cousin the Surface RT, it has the same unusual hybrid form factor, with a touchscreen that is basically usable only in landscape mode and only with the help of a keyboard-cum-Touch Cover.
Unlike the Surface RT, the Pro runs fulls Windows 8 with the help of an Intel Core i5 processor, meaning it has compatibility not only with Windows 8 apps but with the entire glut of legacy Windows desktop apps. This full-fledged Wintel box also rocks a gorgeous 1080p screen, which, along with the Intel chip, means it gets only a few hours of battery life tops.
The official Microsoft announcement around the Pro was odd, though. As if to incentivize buyers potentially turned off by its steep price (basically what you would pay for an ultrabook), Microsoft offered exclusive Touch Cover colors (cyan, magenta) for the Pro, along with a Wedge Touch Mouse. So we have, essentially, a response to the iPad and the sea of increasingly capable Android tablets (namely the Nexus line and Samsung’s phablets) that is priced like a high-end Windows laptop and accessorized like a desktop (others have already noted how the Surface’s various covers are only really usable on a table or, well, a desktop surface…sorry).
Is this a machine meant for the enterprise? Its price and “full Windows” capability seem to indicate Microsoft’s attempt to stanch the tide of iOS and Android into the workplace by showing off how well Office can run on a semi-tablet. But at the same time, the silly playfulness of the color covers and superfluous mouse/pen support indicate what seems to me like some confusion about what the Surface Pro wants to be – namely, that it wants to capture the consumer imagination like the iPad or Nexus 7 have.
If Windows 8 hybrids have anything in common, it is overly high price, and the Pro is no exception. Is a consumer going to shell out over 1k (with taxes and the almost obligatory Touch/Type Cover) for a device that is distinguished primarily by its ability to run old Windows programs and Office? I don’t doubt that many enterprises – still under the illusion that Office is a necessity – will, but I have my doubts about consumers at large.
Part of the issue is how stridently the Surface family tries to re-appropriate the mobile device sphere as a realm of “PCs” (it prompts you to “Setup Your PC,” etc. and Steve Ballmer himself is fond of this terminology). This is an incredibly semantical way of trying to confront the post-PC march, by simply saying that all tablets are actually “PCs.” Whether they are or not, of course, doesn’t matter – the best tablets are not being made by Microsoft and they aren’t running Windows (7/8/RT/Phone/whatever), either.
What’s more, as I alluded to in a tweet, the idea of a device that bridges the gap between laptop and tablet is already being materialized by both the iPad (with its rich productivity app library and capable Bluetooth keyboards) and the Chromebook (which powers an old-school laptop with essentially a mobile OS), both of which are distinguished from the Surface family by their willingness to completely let go of the desktop legacy.
It feels like the Surface Pro may energize some parts of the enterprise that still cling to the last necessities of the Windows/Office, but it’s still a wannabe consumer hit in “business” clothing, and it feels like something that by trying so hard to please both sides will satisfy neither.
-The ScreenGrab Team
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