There may be a Chromebook in my future

The Thinker by Rodin

In principle, I am against getting in bed with any computer company. And yet it is hard to avoid.

Since 2008, I have been principally using Apple computers. I have an iMac where I do most of my work, and an iPad when I want to read more than interact with the web. I also have, courtesy of my employer, a Windows 7 laptop. I need it for work but there are also times when I just need Windows. Unfortunately, I’ll have to turn in that machine when I retire August 1. I don’t like Windows enough to want to buy a Windows computer, or even pay a license to run it virtually on my iMac, particularly now that Windows 8 is your user interface. In any event, upon retirement this will leave me with an Android-based Smartphone as my remaining computing device.

So you basically have to pick your platform. It’s almost always Windows or Mac for the desktop, and Android or iOS for mobile devices. None of them are ideal, even Apple with its shiny computers and snappy user interfaces. There is also no one-size-fits-all device, which is probably good because what you need often depends on your intended use.

For example, I don’t need to run Quicken on my Smartphone. I don’t need to edit Microsoft Office documents on my smartphone either, although seeing them on my smartphone is occasionally useful. When I am doing financial stuff, writing or banging out code, that’s when I really need a desktop or laptop computer. This kind of work is either mostly a lot of entering numbers or text. The work is primarily assertive computer use.

By the way, this is a term I just made up. It means I need to assert lots of real world facts to a computer, basically translating my thoughts into something that a computer can use. Assertive computer use often involves repetition but it also means expressing structured content and thought. Creating this post, for example, is assertive use. It requires not just a brain dump, but structuring my words carefully so exact meaning is communicated. In theory I can do this with voice recognition software. In practice it is much more efficient to do it with a keyboard.

During my last vacation I brought along just my iPad and a wireless keyboard, basically to see how realistic it was to do assertive computer work on this kind of device which is really optimized for browsing. What I discovered was that it was possible to do assertive work, but it was a hassle. The Microsoft Office suite has now arrived for the iPad, but it doesn’t make doing assertive work that much less challenging. It’s a hassle because I am using an iPad, and it’s not a desktop computer, and a tablet computer is basically used for browsing and for simple interactions that can be done by pointing. For assertive work, it’s like expecting a subcompact to haul a trailer. It is technically possible perhaps, but not close to ideal. Moreover, by its size and nature, it never will be ideal for this work.

So there is no one-size-fits-all device. We like to think that it can be done, but it can’t all be done elegantly on one device. But even when a device can do something elegantly, it cannot always do it optimally. That’s what I’m learning about my iMac. Mostly what I am learning is that after six years with the machine, I need to replace it. It’s not because there is something wrong with my machine, it’s that software has evolved a lot in six years. It’s gotten bigger and fatter and is causing my iMac to go into conniptions.

My 2008 iMac has 4GB of memory. It’s no longer close to enough, particularly when I am using Google Chrome as my browser, but also when I am running Dreamweaver or any Microsoft Office product. Chrome is fast, provided you have the memory. I now need 16GB of memory to get good performance and keep all the programs I use regularly handy. Unfortunately, I can’t add more. Once memory is used then when I start new programs I often wait, and wait. The operating system had to create a whole lot of virtual memory on my disk drive, which is much slower to read and write to than memory. It can take a couple of minutes to open Excel for the Mac, particularly if I have Chrome running.

Apple would like me to buy a new Mac, and I may have to. Six years is a long time to use any computer. However, the computer still looks like new. There is no reason to replace it other than due to general slowness due to new and more bloated programs I am running. I can’t replace the drive with a solid state drive to improve performance. And I can’t reengineer Chrome, Microsoft Office or any of these memory hogs. I can choose less memory intensive programs, perhaps by using Firefox instead of Chrome. But I moved to Chrome from Firefox because of its instabilities.

The general problem is there is no way to really know how efficiently a program will run until you use it a while with other memory resident programs. Software developers, being lazy, assume you have the latest machines with plenty of memory and super-fast processors. Coding for minimal memory use generally does not occur to them. What I can do is use my iMac just for assertive tasks, like writing documents, coding and email and stop using it for web browsing, in favor of devices which are better optimized for that, like my iPad. Or I can get a new computer and go through the same cycle again in a few years.

Or I could get a Chromebook. A Chromebook is Google’s version of a laptop computer, optimized exclusively for Google services. It runs on its own ChromeOS operating system. It basically requires you to do all your work inside of the Chrome browser. To use it effectively you generally need to be on a high speed wireless network. Of course you have access all the features of Google Drive so you have word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Google is working hard to allow it to work easily disconnected from the network, via Chrome Apps.

Why does this help? Well, for one thing, I don’t need to wait a couple of minutes for Excel to load my spreadsheet. The functionality is there in a Google spreadsheet already. It’s true that their spreadsheets are not quite the same as Excel, but they are now close enough. In addition, all the stuff on your Google Drive is readily sharable. Google spreadsheets even have capabilities that Excel does not, perhaps the most useful of which is they are in the cloud, instead of sitting on your hard disk when you are a thousand miles away. And since my use is minimal, it is essentially free. There is no need to worry about installing the latest version of Google spreadsheets. There is no requirement to pay a Microsoft ransom periodically to keep writing or maintaining a spreadsheet. I also don’t need to spend more than a grand to upgrade my iMac. It’s all done in a web browser. These hassles of doing a lot of my assertive work, if it works as advertised, largely go away.

Moreover, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to buy a Chromebook. A decent Mac laptop is going to cost well over $1000. Chromebooks start around $200. Even if it only lasts you a few years, your data is in the cloud, hence always backed up. In addition, the device is cheap enough to easily replace. It can be used for most assertive tasks, as well as for browsing. Perhaps most cool of all, there is almost no “boot” time. Your Chromebook is available when you need it in seconds.

Its downside is limited use. If it can’t be done in a browser or one of their apps, you can’t do it at all. But I don’t see a Chromebook as my only computer, but as a primary computer to use except when I need the power of a desktop computer.

In short, it’s a pretty compelling solution as long as you don’t mind getting in bed with Google. If I’m going to have to get into bed with any company however, I might as well save money and time.

Smartphoned at last!

The Thinker by Rodin

For someone who makes his living enabling information technology, I can be a technology laggard. So it was with the smartphone and me. Since I am parked in front of a computer for most of the day anyhow, there seemed little reason to buy a smartphone, particularly considering how much it costs to have the privilege of being on the internet all the time. Verizon Wireless’s prepaid plan is $50 a month, and that’s stacked on top of your other communications bills which for most of us is around $150 a month for high speed internet at home, cable television and maybe a home phone. So for me, my $7.99 remanufactured dumb as dirt cell phone with a prepaid $20 a quarter plan from Virgin Mobile (no longer available) made much more sense. I didn’t need the Internet on a mobile device and until recently I was lucky to get one call a week on my cell phone. If it was really that darn important, call me on my cell phone. Otherwise, leave me alone.

Eventually the cost of devices and plans gets low enough where I bite. I bit into the smartphone apple at last this week. Given my daughter’s positive experience with her smartphone and her $35 a month plan from Virgin Mobile for the last year or so, $35 a month did not seem an absorbent amount of money to pay for mobile internet and phone. This plus regular cash coming in from my online business gave me the excuse to take the plunge. So I ordered the fanciest Virgin Mobile smartphone I could find, the HTC EVO V 4G and waited for it to arrive in the mail. For a couple of days I have been getting acquainted with the device and pondering what it means.

One annoyance, which I hope is transitory, is its battery, which cannot seem to retain a charge for more than six hours even when it spends most of its time in sleep mode. I think my battery is a dud so under the phone’s warranty I plan to get it replaced. It may mean dealing with the hassle of keeping the phone’s battery charged more than with my old cell phone, which could go four to 5 days on a charge. I guess all its technology comes at the cost of needing more juice to keep the processor and circuits running.

The phone has 4G capabilities, which is the neatest and coolest IEEE standard in wireless communications. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a 4G signal, not even along the Dulles corridor where the technology companies are jammed together and the carrier I use, Sprint, has offices just half a mile away. So it is plain 3G instead, which is adequate but still kind of slow compared to the high speed Internet I take for granted at home and at work. This doesn’t bother me that much. I won’t be streaming many videos to my smartphone anyhow.

Buying an iPhone with Virgin Mobile is technically possible, but cost prohibitive, so I stuck with an Android smartphone. At least so far I have found little objectionable using Android compared with the iPhone’s iOS operating system. Navigating the menus and finger motions are a bit different, but not objectionably so. The main thing to understand about Android is that it is not Windows on a smartphone, and it is not a product of Microsoft. Google has bigger plans and understands the mobile market and mobile operating systems much better than Microsoft. So you are unlikely to find Android uncool, just perhaps not as cool as iOS on the iPhone. Moreover, Android runs fast.

A smartphone should marry voice and information intelligently, and my HTC Evo V and Android do a great job. If you are using an Android-based smartphone, it pays to be part of the Google collective, i.e. have a Google account with Gmail and Google calendar. Naturally, it works sweetly and smartly with Google’s services, almost scarily so. It automatically populated my address book with email addresses and phone numbers of people I know and knew. This included a guy I haven’t worked with since 1998, who I accidentally called. It also included a whole bunch of people I really don’t ever want to call or send email to. There was no obvious or fast way to delete these contacts. I ended up keying in many of the most important names and phone numbers myself, as I could not make the Bluetooth connection with my old cell phone quite work.

Some software engineer was also obviously wide-awake designing the phone’s home screen. It is actually incredibly useful. The time of day along with the local weather and current temperature are prominently displayed, along with the number of voice mail, emails in your inbox, and a count of missed messages, which includes text messages and Facebook posts. It is counterintuitive when you first see these that you first must drag a ring onto the screen to tell it you want to do business. Add a security PIN to unlock the phone and that’s quite a bit of pecking and dragging your finger before you can do anything useful.

Still, it’s slick, shiny and has a retinal display. Despite its razzle-dazzle, to my chagrin the smartphone part is quite useful. Appointment cards will soon be a distant memory. I know my calendar instantly now and what dates and times are optimal and it all syncs up in the cloud transparently and permanently. Paper boarding passes will be obsolete as well. Send it to my smartphone and scan it at the gate. Snapping photos is also always available, at least until the battery dies, and photos can be sent via email or social media with but a few strokes of the finger. And of course there is the Internet. The built in browser is adequate but so many sites are now mobile-friendly that most web sites looked stripped down. Most of the time I would prefer the full screen and to zoom into content when desired.

If all that is not enough there is of course a zillion apps, some free, some with price tags that you can easily download and run. It was just a matter of hours before I downloaded my first app, a multi vendor chat app, which can keep me in constant instant messaging status with loved ones and friends. Its main use is to let me know my 23-year-old daughter is alive, because if she is on a computer, she is on MSN chat.

And therein is the problem. By being always on there is the expectation that you are, or should be, always available to any of your extended family or friends on a whim. Sometimes it is not convenient to give attention to your smartphone. Sometimes you just don’t want to type a text message to a spouse or a friend. Sometimes you want to be alone and brood in a corner. Sometimes you need to be absorbed in your job. However, just as often you want those interruptions, because work is often tedious or you welcome some distraction. You find yourself, just because you can do it now, reaching out and touching a friend with a text message or shooting him a picture. There is no reason to wait until the evening to post pictures on your blog or Facebook. Just do it now and let the technology figure out how to handle the logistics of it all.

So I feel like I am giving up something but I am probably also gaining something more valuable. Technology is knitting me closer in relationship and in real-time. Whether this is good or bad I don’t know. Right now it is novel and kind of neat.

iPad first impressions

The Thinker by Rodin

So I’m a wee bit distracted. My iPad 2 arrived Monday from some factory in China where it was assembled and engraved. (Yes, I have my name and email address engraved on the back so hopefully it will return to me if it gets lost. No extra charge for the service, at least if you order it online.) My evenings have been occupied playing with the device.

Did I need an iPad? I didn’t think so. It was sort of a belated Christmas present to myself. I don’t use a cell phone enough to justify the expense of a smartphone, but I wanted to understand this whole mobile computing arena a little better. The only real choice with tablet computers was whether to use the iOS or Android operating system. If it is iOS, it meant buying an iPad. I went with Apple’s iPad because I already have an iMac, and I knew from many reviews that it wouldn’t suck. Consumer Reports liked the cheaper Samsung Galaxy Tab just as well. However, once you own an Apple product, you expect it to give you the same thrill driving a Lamborghini gives a racecar enthusiast. It’s hard to say precisely why it does this to you, but it does, and in this case it’s worth an extra $200 or so. I bought the basic version: WiFi enabled but without the pricey 3G option, and with 16GB of memory. I don’t need to constantly watch movies or listen to music, so extra memory was not worth paying for.

The iPad turns out to be an excellent product, even by Apple’s fussy standards. Not that it is perfect but it is darn near perfect. It has some oddities and quirks that I will get into, but just holding it and using it is an electric and almost reverential experience. As you use it, you cannot help but marvel just how amazing a product it is and how intelligently it is designed. Steve Jobs went to meet his maker, but arguably this last product that bears his stamp was his greatest triumph. It is just so incredibly slick.

What’s neat

  • Portrait mode. Since the iPad is eminently portable and offers a fine resolution, portrait mode is possible. It’s amazingly how much better web pages and all your applications are in portrait mode. That’s because reading in landscape, even though we should be accustomed to it, is unnatural to our eyes and brain. The eye is lazy and it wants to read down more than across. You can take in so much more content at a glance in portrait mode and do it much more easily. Of course you can move between portrait and landscape simply by turning the device sideways.
  • Maps. Map interfaces are now standard, but using the Maps application is so amazingly slick. Using finger movements to zoom in, zoom out and scroll horizontally and vertically is so much faster than using a mouse. There is no delay waiting for images. Boom: they are there. Switching from street view to satellite view puzzled me for a while, until I saw the little page drag symbol in the bottom right corner. Drag it and options appear. What a neat and intuitive way to hide and reveal options in an application! More of this in other applications please.
  • E-mail and calendar integration. It couldn’t be easier to set up my email, and information carried over to the calendar application automatically. The calendar application just looks gorgeous. It makes you want to create meetings just for the fun of using the interface. And it synchronizes transparently with my GMail calendar.
  • On/Off. I bought the optional cover for my iPad, which has magic magnets that adhere like glue and in just the right spot to its left edge. Flip the cover over the display and it turns off instantly. Pull it back and it turns on and is fully functional instantly. This is the way all computers should be and hopefully all soon will be, thanks to cheaper persistent memory.
  • Touch keyboard. It’s amazingly usable. It’s not quite as productive as using a real keyboard, but almost, providing it’s in landscape mode. You can certainly reply to email with it but until you are fully proficient typing with it, you will tend to keep your emails short. A wireless Bluetooth keyboard is available.
  • Your bathroom Internet appliance. The iPad is the perfect bathroom companion. A laptop is too cumbersome, and a smartphone has too small a screen and keyboard to be fully functional. For toting around or anyplace where space is at a premium, it is the ideal device for full and unfettered access to the Internet.

What’s not so hot

  • Extras. Apple and their app vendors want to sell you stuff. eBooks, music, video access, apps, iCloud hosting, you name it and you mostly have to buy it online through Apple’s store. So set up an Account in the Apple Store and don’t be surprised if you have a sizeable bill every month for all the content you are buying.
  • Safari only. Want to surf the web? You had best learn to like Safari, because it’s your only option. It works great, but it is quite stripped down for the iPad. The good news: few confusing options. The bad news: by keeping it simple, it is what it is. I don’t think you can add extensions, and I haven’t found a hidden menu to customize its settings.
  • Single user only. This is your personal device. It helps to think of it as a diary. Unless your life is incredibly vanilla, be aware that anyone using your iPad can act as you. You cannot set up different accounts for different people. So they can get into your email, calendar, Facebook accounts etc. with no problems. Philanderers, beware!
  • Home, End, Page Up, Page Down. Perhaps there is an easy way to get to the top and bottom of a document, probably by first invoking the touch screen keyboard, but I haven’t found it yet. There is an iPad manual (PDF) you can download with instructions that I am making my way through. The iPad aims for simplicity but in achieving that goal it seems like things you take for granted, like convenient Home and End keys, are mostly not available. Prepare to use your fingers a lot to scroll. On the plus side, scrolling is very slick. It does not come with a PDF reader, but I was able to download a free Kindle reader app and thus was able to use that to read it like a stored local file, easily jumping to content of interest. Load it into Safari and Safari will keep refetching the document every time it starts.

Technical things worth noting

  • Battery life is about seven hours of continuous use. Finally, a useful fully functional, portable Internet device. Unless you are flying to China you aren’t going to run out of juice on a flight.
  • Opening and closing applications. Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t seem to find a way to close an application. Basically Apple doesn’t want you to worry about these things. Stop worrying about these things, along with booting up and formally shutting down.

These are just some first impressions. Many of the limitations may not be limitations at all once I get to know the device better. Overall, the iPad is an immensely satisfying and amazing device. I didn’t think I needed one but now that I have one, I cannot imagine not having a tablet computer. In the future I don’t plan to take my laptop on travel, but just my iPad because it is nearly as functional at a fraction of a laptop’s weight. A rolled up Bluetooth keyboard will probably go in the backpack as well.

Will the iPad mean the death of Windows?

The Thinker by Rodin

Microsoft Windows has shown amazing resilience for much of its existence, in spite of its arguably inferior status. Microsoft is now busily creating its next version of Windows, Window 8, and is already heavily hyping it. Many years of observation suggest to me that this means the company is running scared. They fear the success of the iPad and the whole new mobile computer market, where Microsoft has floundered.

Apple dazzled the world with its iPad, but it was just the latest in a number of well-received innovations that included the iPod and the iPhone. The cool factor was primarily a result of its amazingly well thought out user interface. Its success spawned a huge developer community that wrote apps for these devices, making them even more useful. While Microsoft was arguably first in the tablet market by creating stylus-based devices like the Tablet PC, they naturally tethered it to Windows. It’s understandable that they would see value in embedding it with Windows, since it is their brand. What they did not see was that a tablet computer needed an operating system where mobility was at its center, not at the periphery. When Apple and Steve Jobs delivered the iPad, they achieved a breakthrough: a highly useful mobile and connected computer that could also do virtually everything you could do on a desktop computer yet not weigh enough to feel burdensome.

What cemented my feeling that Windows days were numbered at last was observing a woman in my chain of command. She dutifully dragged around the required Blackberry for years, but it was largely used for reading and responding to email. With its tiny keyboard, it was hardly ideal for email either. When the iPhone came out, because she had the clout, she quickly got one and realized the freedom of having a useful mobile product. She retired the Blackberry. Just this week her iPad arrived. It’s bigger than her iPhone, of course, but not too big or too heavy not to be easily carried around. Moreover, it was WiFi and 3G friendly. She could be as productive on the go with her iPad as she could in the office.

Executives everywhere are discovering the iPad and to a lesser extent Android-based tablet computers like Samsung’s Galaxy pad. Some of those executives are CIOs and CTOs, and the light bulbs above their heads began glowing brightly as they figured out that these devices make them more productive on the go while also doing 95% of what their desktop computer can do. In fact they do more than their desktop computer can do, because their tablet computers are so portable and geographically aware. When something is 95% as useful as your desktop computer while you are in the office, and more useful than your desktop computer when away from the office, the end of Windows as a client operating system is not hard to infer.

No, Microsoft won’t go away, but desktop computers will become a declining share of the market in general, which in fact is already underway. Instead, you will carry your iPad or Android-based tablet to work, but probably plug it in to keep the battery charged. You will also probably skip the network cable for the convenience of the office’s wireless network. You will mostly use a wireless keyboard to put content on it (at least until voice recognition software too become ubiquitous), and if its relatively small screen is insufficient for the office, you will plug it into your big honkin’ high-resolution monitor. When it’s time to go home you will slip it automatically into your briefcase or bag. It will follow you pretty much everywhere you go, and its low power requirements will mean you can go for many hours without needing to recharge it. But if you do, you are probably near the power grid anyhow.

Windows 8 is supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) and Android. But no matter how well it is engineered, it is unlikely to be more compelling than iOS and the iPad, which the nation’s opinion leaders are already using. It is they who will slowly strangle Microsoft Windows, and over time kill its Office suite and the other products tethered to it as well. In time, we will discover that iOS and Android are really nothing but smartly thought out thin-client operating systems, because content (most of it resting securely in the Internet cloud) and an optimized mobile user interface to read and manipulate it is what really matters in our 21st century information age.

I think Windows will die a slow death, with income principally coming from its server-based products like Exchange. Eventually the backroom tech team will find alternatives for Exchange, Active Directory and many other Windows server based products, because they will be cheaper and many of them will not be proprietary.

If you own Microsoft stock, I would not dump it all at once since it probably still has a decade of profits ahead of it. However, I would be selling it in hearty slices over the next few years because its value is likely to sink. I believe that eventually Microsoft will become just another niche company, like Novell or Computer Associates, selling dated legacy products at premium prices to a reduced set of customers too incompetent or lazy to go through the cost and hassle of ditching them.

Google’s secret sauce revealed by Google+

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s no particular secret that I hate Facebook. My loathing of it has not been enough to keep me off it, since I have a couple of friends that I would hardly ever hear from if it were not for Facebook. Surely, I thought, someone could write something better and more intelligent.

Google is giving it the old college try, actually a second try. Google Buzz was a first bumbling attempt, and is still around, but hardly anyone uses it. This newest attempt called Google+ is rightly perceived as sort of sexy. Facebook won market share surreptitiously but smartly, mainly by marketing to a high-end clientele. If you saw The Social Network you know it was designed to be an exclusive club in cyberspace for those attending Harvard University, then later slowly branched out to other Ivy League schools. It grew like kudzu, slowly at first, but steadily until before we knew it, it was pervasive.

I don’t know exactly how Google chose who would use Google+, or G+ as others and I are starting to call it (it’s so much shorter). But I suspect they looked at the Facebook model, ran some sort of algorithm that figured out who their most social Gmail users were, assigned them a “cool” rating and invited them to try G+ out. Being social of course they quickly invited their friends. I figure that’s how I got invited. (Right now, don’t assume you can just sign up. You need a sponsor.) My friend Renee is by far the most prolific poster I have among my Facebook friends and she has a Gmail account. So I wasn’t surprised that she got an early invitation and she quickly extended it to me. I have spent the last twenty-four hours or so dabbling in the G+ universe.

Yes, I do like it better than Facebook, which would not have been difficult. First, I admire Google as a company. Second, like me, Google obviously spent a lot of time pondering Facebook’s obvious and massive deficiencies, like its baffling user interface, and figured how to do it one better while looking sort of like it.

G+ Circles are one example. Circles are merely collections of friends or people that share a common interest with you. Facebook does have groups, but you have to navigate to them, redrawing your screen in the process. With Circles, Web 2.0 technology ensures that the screen stays the same, but the content changes. It’s much less jarring. Moreover, Facebook groups contain people you don’t necessarily want to interact with. Once you use a G+ Circle, you wonder how Facebook missed something so obvious.

It’s ridiculously easy to create and populate circles. Facebook will suggest friends based on your friend’s friends, the email services you choose to let it peruse and information you put in your profile. That’s a lot of hassle. Many of us in the Google world already have GMail, so there is nothing much for Google to do as far as suggesting friends. Doubtless it just figures out whom you are emailing and ranks them by how often you converse with them. Just drag their icon into the circle you want. That’s pretty much it. If they are not already in the G+ hive, apparently it can send your G+ posts to them via email. It’s unclear to me as a neophyte whether it does this automatically or whether you have to authorize it. I hope it’s the latter.

G+ is a beta product, so it will doubtless morph with features as it grows. I have yet to try most of its ancillary features, but most like Hangouts and Chats sound useful. Its main value appears to be as a key component of the amorphous but meaningful Google experience. For example, I can see that over time G+ will make email something that happens in the background. When necessary, communications will go out via Gmail, but since most of the people you contact will also be in G+, or will get email notifications of conversations through G+, the whole email To-From-Subject-Message thing becomes less relevant. Rather you just find the person in the circle of interest and send them a note. Google handles all the details. Email addresses become unessential physical details that Google handles transparently for you.

Google's application menu
Google's application menu

It’s really that grey bar on the top of your browser screen that distinguishes G+ from Facebook. Facebook had some idea what Google was up to because they too are trying to integrate email inside of Facebook, making Facebook social networking and email one common and seamless experience. But Google has all these other products: a slick calendar, an easy to use Reader for newsfeeds, Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets, its easy to use Picasa photo album not to mention its still top-notch search engine. Facebook cannot begin to compete with all these services Google has had around and have been maturing for years.

Moreover, as more and more of your personal stuff exists within the Google cloud, thinking about where you store all your stuff becomes so 21st century. It’s just out there when you need it – stop worrying about it and just assume it’s always there and instantly avaiable. For the optimal experience, of course, use Google Chrome as your browser. Or, if you are mobile, use an Android-based smartphone, although Apple’s iOS will work as well. Chrome and Android become presentation portals for all the Internet stuff that’s important to you. All those backend interaction portals, like G+, become optimized but sophisticated tools to make your interaction with the web as meaningful and simple as possible. There is all this plus the open Internet. You can still get to any place on the web you need to go. Moreover, doubtless there is an app, if not hundreds of apps that will let you do peculiar but necessary stuff on the Internet. For example, you may need to access that remote spreadsheet at work. Or if like me you are in the water monitoring business, you may want to check on water levels on your favorite local river. Hey, there’s an app for that.

G+ is an attempt, not so much to kill Facebook, as it is to let Google wrap its benevolent arms for you around your whole electronic world. We all get things done in the real world through real people, so interacting with them and exchanging information with them in as seamless and as effortless a way as possible is something we all want. Effortlessness is enhanced through G+ Circles, because there are groups you are very tight with and others less so that you can peruse when time allows. That is the meaning of G+, and is why both Facebook and Microsoft should be very afraid. The gentle giant from Mountain View, California is likely to succeed in bringing us the enfolding Internet, and G+ is its secret sauce designed to seal the deal.

An app’s not an app, for all of that

The Thinker by Rodin

Christmas often brings a new gadget or two under my tree. This Christmas brought me an Amazon Kindle e-book reader, courtesy of my spouse. While I work my way to the conclusion of my paper-bound tome of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, I already know that it would be an easier book to read at night in bed on my Kindle.

I have not yet succumbed to the smartphone mania, although I have played with the smartphones of others. I find them neat devices, at least when the wireless spectrum is not too crowded. Arguably, there would be times in my telephone-minimized life when one of these gizmos would prove useful. It would work as a great GPS, and I wouldn’t have to pay $70 to Garmin to get updated maps. I might find it convenient to answer email while mobile, although I have avoided Blackberries specifically so I do not raise the expectation with my boss that I should always be electronically accessible.

Smartphones seem to be much more about the Internet than about the telephone, and generally to do something useful with them you must download an “app” (application), many of which you must purchase. These apps are proving a boon to software developers, who need to pay bills.

I have been following Google’s Chrome for a while now. Many of us are aware of the Google Chrome browser, and it seems to be gaining market share at a fast pace. It is already clearly the number three browser, and most of its share of the browser market is coming at the expense of Internet Explorer. It’s important to distinguish between the Google Chrome Browser and Google Chrome OS, which is a lightweight operating system. Chrome OS is starting to come out of the labs and will soon be embedded into devices like notebook computers. The Chrome browser is available for a number of operating systems.

Just to make things more confusing, Chrome OS is a distinct operating system from Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones. As many of you know who own smartphones, Android and Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS own much of this market. Arguably, BlackBerry OS is the granddaddy in this market, although its devices have traditionally been focused around email. Microsoft as usual is trying to play catch up, and is currently rolling out Microsoft Phone 7 as its smartphone operating system, apparently deciding to give Microsoft Mobile the towel.

For smartphones, apps are a near necessity. Given the small screen size, you should not mind paying for clever apps that make the most of your smartphone. After all, if your smartphone had enough resolution to be a desktop computer, you would not be installing apps. You would surf to your favorite sites instead.

Or would you? The browser makers are now busy standing up app stores. Browsers like Firefox have a proud tradition of user written free extensions that add functionality to the browser. Many of these extensions are being remarketed as “apps” in Mozilla’s soon to be released application store. Arguably, a browser extension is not the same thing as an application. An extension, as the name implies, extends the functionality of the browser. An application, at least in theory, can live separately from the browser. You should not have to run the browser in order to run the app.

Rather, these apps depend on one or more frameworks. Ideally, an app will depend directly on the operating system to handle the messy things that operating systems do. They may also depend on the framework provided by the browser. Mozilla Firefox, for example, is a browser that works on multiple operating systems. Under its hood is a framework that application developers can build on top of that works regardless of your operating system.

By definition, you need to have your browser running in order to run these browser extensions. With apps, it is no longer required. It may be possible to write an app that uses the browser’s framework without needing the browser to actually display anything. Or an app can be written directly for the operating system. Just as Microsoft Word is written to work with Microsoft Windows, Chrome apps are starting to appear that will work directly with Chrome OS.

All this background is necessary to understand where this is leading. Mobile-friendly operating systems in particular are making browsers less important as independently running apps provide a richer experience. This trend is now bleeding over into desktop and laptop computers and endangering the browser and the world wide web.

So why did Google create its own browser called Chrome in the first place? Could they really create a better browsing experience than, say, Mozilla Firefox? Perhaps, but differences in the usability of browsers in general are becoming irrelevant. Some are marginally faster or slower or offer better or fewer features. The Chrome browser is being marketed so heavily that it is hoped that you will accept it and get used to it. With Google products like GMail and Google Docs, you will also get used to having your electronic life “in the cloud” rather than on your personal device. Eventually you may replace your Windows or Mac machine with a lightweight device running Google Chrome OS. When you will do, you will be encouraged to install various apps, many for free, many for money, to do things the snazzy Google Chrome browser cannot do. (This may not be readily apparent if the apps live inside of the Chrome browser, but the effect will be true nonetheless.)

This will in turn tie you closer to Google, its software services and monetize a stream of money toward Google and third party developers, all through apps provided in its store. The result is that you will end up paying more to get content, much of which used to be free. In addition, the browsing experience may be less valuable, as service providers like Amazon spend more of their time and money tuning content to work with applications rather than a browser. If an app takes off the way other viral software did, say, like Visicalc did in the early 1980s, the only way to get content may be through the authorized app, rather than through a browser.

The World Wide Web as we have known it may be ending, as content moves toward being used through apps rather than a browser. The companies that succeed in the apps market hope to be richly rewarded. The Internet, as a neutral platform for acquiring information, may be less useful or, in time, disappear into marginal relevance. Instead, you will need an app to do it. You may find, for example, that to make your flight reservation with Southwest, you must use its authorized app, for which they may charge you a $10 a year annual fee.

Think twice before paying for an app or buying a device running Google’s Chrome OS. You may be locking yourself into proprietary networks, thus balkanizing an Internet where open accessibility has been its strongest feature. My new fancy Amazon Kindle is locked into Amazon’s network. Now I can buy any eBook I want, as long as it is in Kindle format, and therefore as long as I buy it only from Amazon. (Note: Kindles also can show PDF documents, but they are not as easy to read as an eBook.)