By sheer coincidence, I happened to be off work today, and I also happened to get a surprise package from Google containing a free Cr-48, a Chrome OS netbook intended for beta testing.
For those unfamiliar, Chrome OS is a new operating system from Google, but it’s not intended to be general-purpose; it’s intended to do little other than get you on the web as quickly as possible. Consequently, its UI is basically nothing but the Google Chrome browser, a time display, and wireless and battery icons. It’s questionable whether it can function as someone’s primary laptop (Google even has a handy quiz to help you decide); it turns out I don’t do much off the web, besides playing some games and writing code, and both of those things are better served by a more powerful and less mobile machine.
The Cr-48 Experience
So what’s Chrome OS’s web experience like? Well, just like any other machine’s, really; you probably won’t find any surprises. Flash is built in; we don’t get Silverlight (it’s built on a stripped-down Linux kernel, and when has Microsoft ever offered anything for Linux?), so there’s no Netflix streaming, but pretty much everything else works, including Youtube with HTML5 video, Flash games and toys on Newgrounds, Google Docs/Gmail/Maps/Voice–everything.
The problem is, the Cr-48 just isn’t very fast. Opening multiple links at a time can easily bring the machine to a halt for a few seconds, and it has quite a bit of trouble keeping up a decent framerate on Youtube videos (though it does appear to fare somewhat better with Youtube’s HTML5 mode). Even Chrome’s new tab page takes maybe a second to load all of its contents. Since I’m used to more or less instantaneous response times in Chrome on my work machine and laptop (both of which run Ubuntu with all the crazy graphical effects, the latter of which being a three-year-old Dell XPS), it’s hard to justify using the Cr-48 as a primary work machine. Still, I don’t blame Chrome OS for this; the Cr-48 is a beta product (with far from the best internals; they’re shipping a whole lot of these out for free), and I’m assuming that the upcoming stable Chrome OS machines will be quite a bit faster.
What you don’t get is access to the machine’s internals. I haven’t yet found any file manager, besides a list of downloads (EDIT: and a file selection box that showed the entire filesystem I got by accident that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to see); there’s no text editor, and I haven’t yet figured out how to use the media player (which is mentioned in a menu as “experimental”). The most you get is a list of technical files and logs that Linux users might recognize at
chrome://system, such as process lists (which mainly lists a bunch of Chrome browser processes), CPU info, memory stats, etc.
There is a terminal, accessible by pressing Ctrl-Alt-T. It’s not like any shell I’ve ever seen before though; its prompt calls it “
crosh” (presumably “ChROme SHell”?) and all it seems to allow is a few specialized commands for network and hardware troubleshooting–none of the standard file system tools (not even
pwd). One boon that they did include, however, was (stripped-down) SSH. This allows me to easily remotely control any server I might want to (as long as I don’t need public key authentication), and I can see how this would be an amazing tool for sysadmins. Clearly this machine was designed by geeks.
All in all, this machine’s customizability is at about iPad level. Not that I expected more; it’s designed for nothing more than getting on the web quickly, and it certainly accomplishes that, and really, if all the machine is designed for is the web, SSH is frankly more than I expected (though quite welcome). But it’d be nice to be able to swap out the
crosh thing for something I can use.
Google has tweaked the standard keyboard layout in ways that might surprise the average user:
For one thing, there’s no capslock key. In its place is a “search” key, with an icon reminiscent of Android’s search button, which really just opens a new tab (and lets you do a search by just typing your query into the URL bar, like in Chrome on any other platform). This is a delightfully welcome change, since I was never using capslock anyway (having, y’know, finished puberty years ago), and I’ve already become dependent on its replacement as of this writing. (Google even jokes in the setup notes that if you really want to, you can set it to function as a capslock key “so you can post an INSIGHTFUL COMMENT ON YOUTUBE.”)
The other notable change is the function key row. Since those don’t really have any use when the entire interface is a browser, Google has replaced them with a set of function-specific keys. In order, they are: Back, Forward, Reload, Fullscreen (all for web browsing, and welcome additions), Switch Window (for multiple browser tab sets), Brightness Down/Up, Volume Mute/Down/Up and Power. I just wish it had keys for switching tabs, since the keyboard shortcut for it is Ctrl-Tab, which is somewhat cumbersome.
Speaking of mice, the Cr-48′s ports are fairly sparse. We have a standard headphone jack, one USB port, a VGA port for a second monitor, a power jack and an SD card slot. There’s no Ethernet (somewhat surprising, but then, I guess everyone has wifi these days), and I’m not really sure what the SD card slot is for since I don’t have any SD cards to test it with. Google shows again here that there’s a lot of cruft worth trimming on the hardware that we normally buy; nowhere here do we see the common perplexing set of colorful audio ports.
Chrome OS represents a radical take on the web. It’s clear from feeling perfectly at home on it after a day of use that I sufficiently “live on the web” (at least for recreation). There’s no denying it has kinks to iron out, most notably the touchpad (it remains to be seen whether the hardware or the software is the issue) and its speed (probably the hardware). I also have nothing but praise for Google regarding this beta program–not least because I got a free notebook out of it–but also because it handles the issues Google tends to have with UIs, by aggressively putting the paper cuts on display for users to point out, criticize and work through before release.
I’ll keep using this machine and submit plenty of feedback like Google requested, starting with this post. As for the ethical issues surrounding it, those will have to wait for another one. Also, if you think you’d enjoy living on the web, you should sign up for the pilot program yourself–it’s open until Dec. 21, and who knows, you might be as lucky as I was.
John Gruber wants to know where the Android killer apps are. I won’t presume to speak for all Android users, but here are a few that I’m quite fond of (ignoring, as Gruber does, the superb built-in first-party apps like turn-by-turn navigation and Gmail).
- 8pen: An innovative and beautiful complete redesign of touch-based text input.
- Cubed (3): A music player with a unique spinning cube interface.
- Youtube Remote: From Google, but not preinstalled or built in: easily control Youtube on your computer from across the room, using your phone.
- LauncherPro: A fork of the stock Android home screen, heavily improved by a 3rd party developer.
- Tasker: Automatically do anything in response to anything. (In case you think I’m exaggerating, look at it.)
- Astrid: Best todo list app I’ve ever used.
- Labelert: Get specific, custom notifications for different Gmail labels, even changing the notification LED color if your phone supports it.
- Craigslist Notification: Enter Craigslist search terms, and get notified when new posts appear.
- Parcels: Easily track packages, and get notifications whenever any of their statuses change.
There’s mine. What third-party Android apps do you like?
Update: People are telling me in comments that Parcels is apparently a ripoff of a similar iOS app. Perhaps, but does the iOS app give you system-wide notifications that stack up for later viewing in the top bar?
Let’s talk hypotheticals for a moment.
Can you imagine a scenario where Apple releases a fully-fledged laptop locked down like the iPhone or iPad? A fully fledged computer on which the only way to install software is through Apple’s built in App Store?
To borrow an overused phrase, it’s more likely than you think.
Would you buy it? Would other people buy it?
Package management can be awesome
I’ve written about package management before. I believe that locking down a package manager such that the user can’t change the available software channels is unethical and flies in the face of years of innovation. We’ve always treated computers as though they were owned by their users, and I see the popularization of devices like the iPhone and iPad as a disturbing precedent. Might Apple be emboldened to try locking down full computers the same way?
We live in an age in which the technology is powerful enough to implement such a thing. Apple is certainly capable of running the servers necessary for supplying its users with all their software, and it would certainly be lucrative, given how successful the iPhone’s app store is and how much 3rd party pay software exists for Macs right now (which Apple would then be able to take a cut of the profits on). There is thus a clear financial incentive for Apple to set up such a system, and for developers to continue to target it (and submit to their harsh developer restrictions).
And let’s face it: such a system would be amazing for users who don’t care. They would enjoy Apple’s rigorous testing process for all their software, and thus enjoy machines that almost never become bogged down by slow or unstable apps. They’d have an easy way of finding and installing all the software they could ever want–even simpler than what they currently have on Macs, and that’s saying something–along with Apple’s approval of all of it, which carries all the quality control that their name has become synonymous with.
I can imagine other possible models. Maybe they’d offer people “simple” or “advanced” options when purchasing computers, the former being cheaper and locked down for the “I really don’t know how to use computers” crowd. Such a thing doesn’t seem like them though, given how well they’ve avoided fragmenting their product ecosystem. Or perhaps they’d simply release their own blessed way to jailbreak the system if a user cares enough.
Right, jailbreaking! Can’t you just jailbreak it?
A cursory glance at the history of the iPhone would make one all but certain that if Apple released such a system without offering a way to unlock it, their users would find a way (as they will undoubtedly with the iPad).
I find this scenario similarly unpleasant, for two reasons. One is that if your enjoyment of a machine depends on an unauthorized hack, you are entirely dependent on those hackers to keep it jailbroken the next time Apple pushes out a system update that invariably locks you down again–the ease of which is never a certainty. It’s a cat-and-mouse game that some users appear more than happy to play, but in the long run it definitely doesn’t seem worth the effort to me.
The other is that you’re ignoring the device’s biggest selling point. If a device is locked down, it’s locked down as a genuine means of quality control, which Apple has shown itself to be superb at. To my mind, jailbreaking an Apple device invalidates everything good about it–Apple’s assurance that you’re getting the best you can get.
This argument may seem self-contradictory–suddenly a device being locked down is a good thing? It’s important to remember that the reasons for locking down a device in the first place are, in order:
- Making a cut off of lucrative third-party software sales.
- Making sure that 3rd-party software enriches the platform rather than makes it look bad.
- Making the system easy to use.
- Making the system stable, secure and fast.
For most users, a locked down system is protection from systems they don’t care about knowing how to use, and from software that might harm their systems. To users who care about customization, it’s a heavy-handed restriction on something they want to use that just gets in their way. Users in the former category genuinely benefit from a locked down system, and users in the latter category don’t.
So how likely is it?
I’ve always felt that Apple’s primary market is the former category, and that’s why I think this scenario is so likely. It worries me, because I’ve always clung to the idealistic notion that someone who uses a computer has a responsibility to know how to make changes to how it functions. An Apple user might counter that all Apple’s lockdowns do is simplify the method for those changes so more people have access to them. I would counter that such a thing is worthless if more fine-grained customizability is lost in the process.
But then, I suppose that’s why I’m an Ubuntu user. I have the tools I need to change where my software is coming from, and I use them. I just wish more people noticed or cared.
My friend Sam over at WrongBot has a piece up about the disconnect between price and value, focusing on how it concerns piracy. I have a lot to say in response, which I felt merited a post of its own.
Sam sets up a dichotomy between price and value, which he defines as, respectively, “how much you pay for [a good or service]“, and “how much a thing is worth”. The former varies quite a bit for a given good or service; the latter, for the most part, does not. He then goes on to describe a disconnect between the two, and how in recent years it’s gotten worse:
We now live in a world where the minimum price you can expect to pay for a piece of music is zero dollars. And if people have trouble telling price and value apart, which I think it’s clear that they do, then there are a lot of people who think that recorded music isn’t worth anything at all. Now, this is an obviously erroneous belief, because these people listen to music, and therefore it has value to them. But they don’t realize that. They think that the value is the price, which is nothing. And by “they,” I mean “all of us.”
The problem with this argument is that it’s too narrow a description of what people are willing to pay for. This argument views buying a album of music as a straightforward money-for-music deal. The real market isn’t that simple. There are other factors to consider: what can I use to listen to this music? What does it cost me in terms of time? Am I limited in any way in how I use it? Am I in danger of legal trouble for using or having it?
From the purest standpoint of a consumer, what piracy ultimately boils down to is a different distribution method, which has its own conveniences and drawbacks. Let’s take CDs as an example. Clear costs are in red (since some are debatable). A CD’s features are:
- Can be played in portable CD players or computers.
- Must be physically retrieved to be used.
- Can be optionally encoded to a computer.
- Can be easily shared with friends.
- Comes with art and lyrics and possible other features.
- Costs around $10-15.
- Requires either a trip to a brick-and-mortar store, or a several day wait to acquire.
Now let’s look at pirated music through the same lens.
- Costs nothing.
- Requires no physical storage.
- Can be easily shared with friends.
- Instant or very fast gratification.
- Can be played on computers and PMPs, or optionally encoded onto CDs.
- Requires users to organize their music themselves.
- Carries a minor risk of legal reprisal from authorities such as the RIAA.
It’s hard to argue from those lists that CD’s are a superior format, no? Takes up little to no space, can be played on any device (including much smaller ones than CD players), and it costs nothing! Not to mention, so few people have been sued by the RIAA that the lawsuits that have happened have served more to piss people off than scare them into paying for things.
When piracy first became a viable option for the masses–that is, when Napster became popular–the music industry’s response was to try to defend their operations by attacking it. For whatever reason, their thought was not “here’s a new opportunity, let’s learn how to make money from it”, it was “this threatens our business model, let’s destroy it”. And let’s be clear: this is a service that was better. Yes, it being free was a factor in that, but CD’s don’t offer instant gratification and will always require physical storage.
It took a few years, but music distributors figured this out. They know that instant gratification is very, very, very important if you want to get someone to pay for something. That’s why the iTunes Music Store is the largest music distributor in the world–it provides music straight into a user’s iTunes library in just a few clicks (effectively a music package repository). Amazon understands this with their MP3 store, which can automatically export its downloads into a user’s iTunes library or Windows Media Player.
And it’s also why streaming music is changing everything now.
I’m talking about Pandora, last.fm and Spotify. I’m sure we all know the former two–the latter third has made a tremendous splash in Europe, and will undoubtedly make a similar one once it makes its way to the USA. It’s basically like iTunes, except all of its music comes straight from their servers on demand, ad-supported or for a monthly fee. Let’s look at the feature list for that:
- Costs nothing.
- Allows personalized choices of music on demand.
- Instant gratification.
- Requires no physical storage.
- Can be played on computers and increasingly common internet-conneted portable devices.
- Costs money to remove ads.
This is better in almost every way, for nearly all use cases.
Economics has been called the Dismal Science for a reason: it’s amoral. It assumes that people don’t do what’s right: they act in their self interest. But there’s an upside to that: it means that piracy can be beaten by offering a better product. In the early days of piracy, it’s true that the technology didn’t exist yet for making current and emerging distribution methods practical–but it’s constantly getting cheaper, and as it does it’ll only become easier to make services like Spotify profitable.
For other examples in other media, there’s Audible.com, Netflix and Steam–all services which clearly have something to lose from piracy, and yet are doing pretty well. These businesses have all come up with ways to be better options than piracy for at least a lot of people, and they’re quite rightly doing well for it.
So yes, there may be a disconnect between what’s right and what happens in practice. But that’s no excuse for anyone to dig their heads in the sand and refuse to innovate. The world changes; if that threatens your business, then change your business. Draconian measures to protect a demonstrably inferior business model will not halt progress.
I’m a fan of Twitter. It’s certainly wormed its way into all of our hearts over the year 2009, becoming bizarrely ubiquitous in our media and in our minds. But despite whatever it may mean for democracy, communication, location-awareness or real-time trend monitoring, it brought with it a horrid curse upon the Web that endangers all of its users.
That curse is URL shortening. And yes, it did exist before Twitter, but Twitter both limits how much its users can post and depends on those users sharing content with each other, often in links–and those URLs can take up a lot of space. The growth of URL shortening has brought with it the growth of URL shortening services, which apparently hope to monetize it.
Leaving aside the issue of how monetizing such a thing can be done, URL shortening is bad from a user’s perspective for the simple reason that if someone shares a link with me, I have no clue where it’s going. If someone just posts “OMG this is awesome”, the shortened URL they post it with could just as easily be a rickroll attempt as it could be an evildoer hijacking their account and sending me to malware. And while I may be running Ubuntu, there’s no way of knowing that there isn’t some kind of zero-day exploit already being used on it (I have no illusions about Ubuntu being perfectly secure, after all).
This isn’t just a security problem–it’s also a usability one. What if I’m playing music and I don’t want to see a Youtube video? What if I’m working and only want to click on a link if I know it’ll be something quick? What if it’s a link to an inflammatory Reddit post that’ll just get me angry and ruin my mood?
In order to avoid subjecting people to this danger, I’ve installed YOURLS (Your Own URL Shortener… clever!) on my hosting to try to avoid putting people through that. I don’t intend to let anyone else use it for URL shortening, just me–so you can be reasonably certain that if you see a short URL beginning with perpetualstudent.net/, it came from me and not someone who hijacked my account. Yes, my domain isn’t especially short, but it’s probably short enough for my purposes. YOURLS is a great project, if only because it shows just how little work it takes to make a URL shortener beyond thinking of a clever short domain name. All it takes is a cleverly-written .htaccess file, a bit of PHP code and a MySQL database. YOURLS even gives you all the same URL tracking features that the likes of bit.ly do.
So please–if you’re going to use a URL shortening service like bit.ly or u.nu, have the decency to explain in context where those links go and what I’ll get if I click on them. The occasional rickroll won’t kill me, but the last thing I want is to feel paranoid when clicking on links my friends share.
Complaining about Facebook changes is nothing new–every time Facebook makes some kind of layout change, there’s a wave of furious indignation in the form of militant fan pages and groups followed by those same people quietly getting used to the changes and forgetting they ever cared. (After the more recent changes, I’ve been consistently amused by people demanding “our old feed back”–the one that pissed those same people off so much when it was introduced.)
This most recent change consists of a revamp for Facebook’s already-substantial privacy settings. This change didn’t actually affect anyone’s settings who didn’t tell it to; users were greeted with an unavoidable menu asking them if they wanted to keep their old settings or switch them to new, simplified privacy categories–the default of which in a number of them was “Everyone”.
This is, to be perfectly fair, not something I really have a problem with. While “Everyone” was preselected for some users (UPDATE: apparently not all, since for some at least, it was set to Original Settings), they gave you all the information you need to decide whether that was actually a good thing. Plus, I get why they’re doing it; they want all the data they have on their users to be available to search engines and marketers so they can monetize it, and so they can position themselves as the search result that people might want to come up on Google searches for their users’ names. Monetizing profile data without incurring the wrath of privacy advocates is something they’ve been doing for years through, among other things, their own targeted advertising network (the one that’s known for selling sex to men and weight loss to women), the ill-conceived and ill-fated Beacon, Facebook Connect, and the notorious ads that use friend connections to make it appear as though a user’s friends endorse a product.
On the other hand, I imagine many of their users neither take the time to learn about how far their profile data can go nor care about the issue, and might very well absently click their way through the menu without thinking about what “Everyone” actually means. Frankly, I have little sympathy for those users, but the EFF disagrees. I would be quite interested in statistics on how many users actually changed their settings to Everyone as a result of this menu–those would presumably be the ones who just didn’t want to be bothered and thought “yeah, whatever”.
It just goes to show: as always, there is no replacement for a smart user. Internet companies will monetize however they can. It’s up to users to decide where they want their data to go, or if they even care.
Edited: Fixed a minor typo. Also, I’ve received reports that Everyone wasn’t always preselected, which is quite significant for the “yeah, whatever” cases.
In a sobering reminder to the Linux world that they aren’t as perfectly secure as they often think they are, malware has been discovered in theme packages on gnome-look.org, a repository for users to distribute display themes and other elements for customizing the appearance of many Linux-based OS installations.
No matter how secure your system is, there’s never a replacement for a well-educated user who knows to at least be wary of untrusted software packages. While a smart security framework can make a user pause before making a mistake, it’s ultimately still at the user’s mercy. (Though having such a system in place is certainly much better than not having one, or providing a false sense of security.) A Linux user who joyfully installs every package offered is really in no safer a position than… well, the majority of Windows users.
Sorry to bother you, but I’ve just done that thing where I switch over to Feedburner and ask you to change the feed you’re using in case you’ve subscribed to my nascent blog. I know it’s annoying, but I’d really appreciate it, and it’d make the experience better for both of us anyway. So please, check it out.
New URL for my feed is http://feeds.feedburner.com/perpetualstudent/eEFV.