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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

 

 

Surface Pro: What’s the Audience?

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

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

Ten Thoughts On Facebook’s Graph Search

It’s probably become clear from my recent string of posts and tweets that I don’t hold Facebook in particularly high regard either as a tool or as a “tech” company. Basically, I think it is an ok but annnoying means of keeping up with friends, but nothing close to the sorts of revelatory software/hardware advances made by the likes of Apple or Google.

Today’s self-described big announcement from Facebook turned out to be a tweak to how desktop-formatted facebook.com in US English produces its search results. Inelegantly called Graph Search, this new tool is a natural language means of trying to find, for example, “Indian restaurants liked by friends from India,” or “shoe stores with good reviews nearby.” It gets this data from posts (songs listened to, places visited, wall posts) made by friends or strangers which are viewable to you, otherwise known as the Open Graph (hence the new tool’s name). CEO Mark Zuckerberg carefully described this as a “beta of a V1,” meaning that sloppiness is expected.

Here are ten quick thoughts on Graph Search.

1. It’s a bit like a dating site.

Dating in fact was mentioned as a use case. Users of OK Cupid and apps of its ilk are likely familiar with the granular filters that can be used to find, for example, a “single man 25-30 who lives in Greater Chicago and is into LTR.” Graph Search introduces this granularity to the data on the Open Graph.

2. The average Facebook profile will need to add more information and make more of its information public in order for Graph Search to really work.

Google Search works because the object of its search – the open Web – is, well, open, and able to be parsed. Facebook is an odd walled garden in which much information is withheld from the majority of users. This will need to change if Graph Search is going to be an accurate, robust tool.

3. Facebook must fix its mobile apps (especially on Android) if Graph Search is really going to compete with Yelp, Foursquare, or even Google Now or Siri.

Facebook’s mobile apps are an embarrassment. Slow, unstable, bloated with features, and encumbered by confusing UI, they would have instantly failed if not for the huge user base that Facebook had accumulated at the tail-end of the desktop computing era. Would-be competitors like Yelp and Foursquare provide much better mobile app experiences. Platform-ingrained tools like Siri and Google Now are only going to get better at contextualizing information and figuring out who you are and what you want to do. For Facebook to compete, they have to make better mobile software, plain and simple. The potential use cases for Graph Search are almost entirely mobile, and would need matching software to be realized.

4. This is basically Search Plus Your World MK II.

Google rolled out Search Plus Your World last year, which used bits of information from your Google+ pages to personalize Web search. It hasn’t set the world on fire, which could be attributable to murky levels of engagement from Google+ users, but it created the blueprint for this type of move toward personal search.

5. It still isn’t clear if Facebook users use Facebook for much other than simple status checking and chatting.

Facebook has ambitions to be a commercial and technological juggernaut. But at present, Facebook is a lot like a bar – a place to socialize, but not quite the right setting for being pitched ads, getting expert answers to questions, or buying retail items. Maybe this will change. But it’s questionable if the average Facebook user wants much more out of the site than quick blurbs from their friends which they can like or comment on.

6. This makes Facebook at the very least searchable – it wasn’t searchable at all before.

Facebook is one of the most unsearchable sites on the Web. You can find friends and sometimes strangers, but search results are unpredictable, messy, and confusing, especially if searching for someone with a common name. Graph Search brings it up to basic usability, which should be applauded as a relief rather than a revolution.

7. If Graph Search works, it will mark the transition of Facebook from website to app/service.

Facebook is still a website. Its best experience comes from desktop use, an obvious legacy of its roots in a time before apps or iOS/Android. As mentioned above, its apps are passable at best. But creating a usable Graph Search will require a robust mobile experience that can get people accurate information on the fly. Doing this successfully would move Facebook away from being a static location (a website that has barely changed in nine years of existence, despite all the Timeline/News Feed rebranding) to being a dynamic service.

8. This probably isn’t a threat to Google or Yelp or LinkedIn.

I leave Foursquare out of this because I think Foursquare is in deep trouble of its own making and won’t last much longer. In any case, the use case for personalized Web search remains unclear, and I’m not sure that Graph Search fully delineates it – as a beta confined to desktop use in the US English-speaking world, it could be a while before it makes real impact on mobile or enacts the site-to-app change I just talked about. In that time-frame, we could easily see the entire mobile landscape shift, either to dynamic platform aggregation services with a big head-start (Siri, Google Now) or other apps which chip away at the amount of time spent on Facebook (Snapchat, Tumblr in particular). Facebook’s current (and perhaps transient) lack of seriousness about iOS and Android could cause trouble for the viability of Graph Search.

9. Graph Search/Bing integration is, along with the Xbox, now the most interesting aspect of Microsoft’s business

With the Windows brand fighting for relevance, Microsoft needs new outlets for revenue and user intake. Graph Search, if it can’t fully answer the question posed by the user, will default to Bing search results. This is a boost to Bing and a slight ding of Google, but it seems like just another instance of platform wars – Siri and Google Now also return search engine results when the question stumps them.

10. “Big announcements” aren’t what they used to be.

Six years ago this month, Steve Jobs made the “big announcement” of the original iPhone, a device whose importance can’t possibly be overstated. But the important thing to remember about Apple’s presentation – something that sets it apart from make would-be pretenders – is that Jobs had a real, shippable product in his hands, one that was definitely going to be released in a short amount of time and which wasn’t a “beta” or “draft” or far-off dream. Graph Search still seems like something not yet born, even though it was announced – sort of like Google’s still-MIA Nexus 4 charging orb. That’s not to say it’s vaporware (it’s not) but the gravity of its announcement is eroded by all the qualifiers around it (“beta,” “V1.0”).

-The ScreenGrab Team