Please Don’t Take My Beta Chrome Away (1)

ADAM ROTHSTEIN is a blogger, an unaffiliated, deeply-read thinker, and a member of the loosely-joined tribe of feral techno-intellectuals I prize following. In a Google Reader post, he mentioned that he was the recipient of one of Google’s Cr-48 Chrome Notebooks, my interest was piqued. Gearfuse already has featured stellar commentary on the Chrome notebook, in John Brownlee’s Unevenly Distributed column. Adam has been using the computer for awhile now, and so I was eager to learn more about the beta experience from him. We conducted an interview in the blank, open, ticklishly agonistic space of Google Docs; the posts that result aren’t meant as finished prose, but preserve the extemporaneous nature of Adam’s riffs and ruminations on the Chrome notebook and the shifting nature of what could be called the Google lifestyle. His observations range widely, from the notebook’s specs to the erotics of consumer electronics to the existential angst of life in the vertiginous, fluorescent void of digital experience. Too long for a single post, and too rich to redact, I’ll be publishing them in a series of four posts over the next few days.

Setting out to explore your experience of the Chrome notebook, Adam, I’m wondering where to begin. Do we start with a straightforward review of the hardware, talk about processing speed, ergonomics, form factors, and all that jazz? Or leap into the semiotics of the notebook computer, the meaning of “beta,” the betwixt-and-betweenedness of a hardware browser?

We might start with introducing me: a person with absolutely no qualifications to be interviewed about technology except that I received a free computer in the mail. But then, yes, I do have this new computer, thanks for noticing. It’s too bad we can’t interview the computer directly, because then we could cut this long-haired writer fellow completely out of the picture.

Though, I can only suppose it is part of Google’s ultimate plan to send out computer testers to a number of unemployed philosophers scattered across the surface of the earth. By doing so, they ensure that someone will take the time to explore the semiotic ramifications of the device, fully integrating it into a hermeneutic framework of technological and epistemological advances across our recent history. Not only does such a person have the jargon chops, s/he has nothing better to do. And heck knows, s/he won’t be able to restrain him/herself. Luckily for them, they managed to send it to a particular individual among the many unemployed philosophers who happens not only to blog frequently and to know some other bloggers (if I’m even allowed to use that term now), but also likes to nerd out about technology fairly often. And I curse a lot, though I’m not sure that’s relevant.

I use my computer in public a fair amount, and wondered if from the other nerds that hang out at coffee shops I might get a “hey, is that a Cr-48?” comment. But of course, I did not. For starters, there’s not a brand on the thing. Additionally, what would they notice? It looks just like I’m using a browser in full screen mode. The shape of the machine is almost like a black MacBook, actually. Perhaps if someone looked at the keyboard, they might wonder at the “search” button in place of the caps lock, but other than that, it’s a small notebook. Forgettable. Like the usual suspects in a French noir film. Raincoat, hat, smoking a cigarette. Like everyone else on a dark street in personal computer town.

As far as specs, there is almost no way for the average user to glean any information about what they are. In settings, I can see the version of the OS and networking connection details, but that’s about it as far as the machine goes. This guy looked into the file system after flipping into developer mode (by flipping a switch, literally, hidden underneath a sticker underneath the battery) and was able to discover the hardware, which he inventories here. But even those details are not especially interesting; there’s nothing out of the ordinary—except that there is a bluetooth antenna, and no bluetooth functionality! Also, the single USB and SD card reader ports are non-functional. A non-functionality is more mysterious than other lacks. Are they planning to reveal more functions eventually? Who knows?

I can say this about the mechanisms though: the rubberized surface is very nice. Barely leaves fingerprints at all, and has a nice feel. Keyboard is very good, much better than a 10” EEE PC, which has the same board width. I can write with this machine thing, and I do. Battery life is pretty incredible as well. A solid 8 hours of use, easy.

But this computer will never be marketed. Google has said so, definitively. So should we even care? Are these things to look forward to, or red herrings? Potential disappointments maybe, when OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers) don’t live up to aspects of this design? How pleased should I be with a product that is not a product? I am pleased; but maybe no more so than any person with a gadget hallucination in his/her hands. Is it exciting to hold a physical manifestation of vaporware? Or a little too close to crazy?

It’s an interesting question, given that Google products are typically in such lengthy beta releases. Apple’s flavor, too, is infamously unsatiated and anticipatory. Given the pace and ideology of innovation, beta isn’t just a release strategy, it’s the cultural mood of the moment. We’re already in the Singularity—but it’s the beta release.

It could be the natural extension of the shortening release cycle. Each new object is superlatively the “most”, the “best”, and “changing everything: again.” The infinite pushes in two directions: towards the longest, farthest, highest, fastest; and towards the shortest, quickest, the infanitescimal. Why spend money on a ad campaign for one big gadget a year? Putting all your eggs in one basket is a big risk in the current climate of consumer goods. Your product could flop. Why not always be selling the next new thing, every day? Every day a new model, a new release, a new update pushed over the air. Sure, people may be sad that their object is immediately outdated. But the longer they fret, the more obsolete they become. Being hip is not about being current, but about designing your own release cycle for your own budget. Are you a “new every two years” sort of person? Or are you so with it, you are on the yearly cycle? Six months? How about every week? Beta breaks it down even more. Now there is no period to the cycle. It is always improving, aging immanently. Products phase into circulation, and phase out. With Google Labs features, nobody is even using the same product. Release numbers mean nothing. The first thing you do when you have a problem is not report a bug and give your release info: you turn off Labs. You have to roll back to an actual release, before you can start to figure out what’s wrong, and then roll back to a previous release. Then maybe you flip on some of the Labs features again. Everyone is at a different level of progress, and they are always sliding up and down by degrees. What is an increment anymore? How would we be able to say what is evenly distributed or isn’t, at least across a relatively isolated tech plateau like “email” or “cloud access”?

What has your experience of the Chrome notebook been like so far, from unboxing to logging on to take a look at this document?

I felt like Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth when unboxing. I came home and there was a box on the porch. My name on it. No card, no note. A single sheet of instructions on how to put in the battery. A slim black thing inside. I plugged it in, opened it, and on a black screen, a white prompt asked me for my Google ID. And then I was in. It was like my Gmail came to life, and asked me if I wanted to know what the Matrix was.

After that, there were the colorful illustrations, helpful diagrams, and offers of YouTube instructional videos: the typical Google new-product experience.

Also odd: on the interior box, printed on the blank brown cardboard is some art: an “exploded” diagram of some sort of rocket ship, with a little hamster pilot. It is difficult to see what it is because of the exploded view, but it appears to be a jet turbine engine with a hamster wheel attached. The hamster is wearing a cute little helmet. I’m not sure if this is cool art, a Google inside joke, or a reference to some future project or product. But there’s no mention of the hamster or his vehicle in any documentation or instructions I’ve seen.

The most illuminating thing I could say about my user experience is to explain that I’m calling it a “hardware browser” in my head. It’s like I’ve taken a window of Chrome of my regular computer, and I’m carrying it around under my arm. There is literally nothing else to this other than a browser. There’s no calculator! (You can get one as a web app). There is a single Downloads folder, to which you can save a photo or pdf, etc, and then re-upload it from there. You can’t open any file type that can’t be opened by Chrome. You can’t open any other file folder on the system, or save files anywhere else, at least through common-user means. There is a version of bash (a Unix shell) called “crosh”, but the text commands are very limited. Some network card troubleshooting, and that’s basically it. There is a ssh client [secure shell for sending encrypted commands], but no X11 (the Unix windowing layer) for it, and no ssh server. To get into crosh you use a key combination not listed with the rest of the hot key combos.

But this hardware browser is, quite simply, the best browser I’ve used. I suppose I was already sold on Chrome as a browser. But to do anything online that is only online, I reach for the Cr-48 first. It is so much better than a tablet. Of course, it is a computer. But its lightness and portability, and the directedness of the resources towards the browsing experience, make it better than netbooks, and more versatile than a tablet. I can’t even browse on my iPhone anymore, because having a full keyboard and a tab interface that I can blaze through with hot keys is so much quicker and responsive than multi-touch. Google, as usual, has loaded up the hot keys. Hitting Ctrl-Alt-? brings up a keyboard overlay on screen, and then pressing Ctrl, Alt, or Shift shows what key combinations do what. (I could see this overlay being part of a tablet interface in the future, perhaps.)

Reminds me of a banner advertisement I keep seeing here on Gearfuse that offers to “complete your iPad experience” by supplying a keyboard/case that turns the device into a netbook-manque.

I stood in line to get an iPhone 3G, because it was clear to me that it would be a versatile, well-made device for web data usages. And I was very happy with it, at least for two years, until iOS 4. But I am wondering if maybe what the iPhone brought to the table has been eclipsed by changes in the way we access data. I came to the realization almost a year ago that every good iPhone app is essentially a web app. Of the fifty-some apps I have on my phone, all but five are useless without a data connection. And those five are games. An app was, for the past two years, the best way of interfacing the data of the Internet on a cell phone, whether that data was a proprietary database, general web access, or an API stream. It still may be the best way for phones, because a tailored app can harness the inconsistencies of small screen real estate, and the unique OS of different phone models. But for a bigger screen, a web app is little different than a native app. It accesses the same data by the same protocols. It even renders with the same technology, most of the time. A web app must tackle the differences between the browsers that will interpret it, but this is far less of a challenge than porting for different mobile OS. Take a look at the New York Times web app, for instance. It looks almost exactly like their iPhone app, and for me anyway, it is faster and more consistent. The Tweetdeck web app is another good example. I couldn’t run the Adobe Air version on my older computer, it was too slow. I liked Tweetdeck for iPhone, but it often crashed for me. But the web app is great, and runs fine. Pandora, Last.fm, Instapaper, Google Maps—all of these too.

I wouldn’t say the web app is a clear success as a product model yet. There are things that haven’t quite made it to the web. There’s no “web iPod” yet, to which I can sync music and video and then listen to it nearly constantly, without blowing my data cap. There are services that give you a gig of cloud storage space, and a HTML browser/player. But that isn’t the 8 gigs of my iPhone. And it won’t work in airplane mode. I discovered another browser OS called Jolicloud, which is meant to be installed on a netbook either as a stand-alone OS or as a dual boot. It is also Linux-based, and in addition to having a launcher for web apps as Chrome does,it also lets you install and run Ubuntu standards like VLC media player, GIMP (bitmap editor), Banshee (music player), and others. These “hard” apps run from a browser-based menu, just like a web app. I think feature-wise, this is currently a better option, realistically. It lets everything that can naturally gravitate to the web do so, and lets solid, irreplaceable programs sneak in the back door. (Actually, that feature set is the same motivation for how I came to use Ubuntu on my personal computer. I realized that almost everything I did was online, and the few things I needed actual programs for, Ubuntu had really strong options to cover each need.)

For web-based data access, Chrome OS is the best I’ve found. Twitter, Email, Docs, browsing reading, streaming music (only exception so far is Vimeo, which is a bit too resource-intensive for the Cr-48’s hardware). Today I thought about cancelling my data plan, and getting a old school cell phone and using the Cr-48 in the car for GPS, for on the move browsing and reading, etc. I don’t know if I’ll do that (can’t really use the Cr-48 one-handed) but the thought crossed my mind.

In the next post, Adam ponders the strangely hackable Google beta strategy and the evolutionary history of the dumb terminal.

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