The network is the computer

Google announced a bunch of stuff last week, finally bringing to the mainstream some bits of tech that have been bubbling away for a few years now.

One is the Chrome operating system, a lightweight OS for netbooks that pretty much hand everything over to the web. So, the OS handles keyboard and mouse inputs and that sort of thing, but basically just boots into a browser and lets you do all your stuff online.

After all, with developments in web technology, who needs software anyway? Google Docs does most of the stuff people who need an office suite use, Picnik is a pretty cool image editor, Gmail is a far better mail client than Outlook is and tools like Huddle and Basecamp provide neat ways of organising your work and collaborating on projects.

Even big, enterprisey software is available through the web now. Salesforce provides a pretty comprehensive CRM offering, Kashflow does the same for accounting, and sites like Netsuite and SAP’s Business by Design provide boring ERP software in the browser.

This is the part of cloud computing known as software-as-a-service. Learning Pool‘s stuff runs on very similar lines: our customers have no software to install, and therefore no patches or upgrades to worry about. Everything can be accessed from anywhere with a browser and a connection to the net.

Anyway, back to Google and Chrome OS. Here’s a video with the skinny:

The idea of the online operating system isn’t new – here’s a review of a previous attempt called YouOS (now sadly dead) that I wrote back in March 2006 – but developments in cloud computing and the almost ubiquitous availability of decent speed broadband (ok, it’s not everywhere yet, especially in rural locations) make it a much more realistic proposition.

What’s interesting about the YouOS example is that it included native applications within the OS itself, rather than just pointing people to existing, external apps. I wrote at the time:

The notion of the online desktop is an interesting one, that conjures the image of computer boxes doing nothing other than handling the keyboard, mouse, display and internet connection; and where you can log in with any machine anywhere in the world and get your own desktop. I suspect, though, that the route that YouOS is taking is the wrong one. What the online OS needs to do is not provide the applications, just the means of accessing the applications, which can be developed by other people on other sites, and the means of storing data to be used and shared between those applications.

It seems like I was probably right about this one (it doesn’t happen often).

Chrome OS won’t be made available for existing netbook owners to download and install – although the fact that it is based on an open source project means that someone else could make it happen. This means that it isn’t possible to have a play with it to see how it works, which is a shame.

One thing that you can have a play with – assuming you have access to Google’s Chrome browser (currently my browser of choice, mainly due to the speed and efficiency of the thing) – is the Chrome Web Store.

A healthy proportion of people are pretty comfortable with the idea of app stores – we’ve used them with our iPhones and iPads, and Android phones and Blackberry users have their own stores – reasonably safe places where applications can be found for the device you are using. Linux users have had an app store like experience for years.

Where these differ with the Chrome store is that Google’s offering is all about web apps, those that work within a browser rather than being native applications that you have to download and install onto your computer, or mobile device.

This is something I struggle with slightly, in terms of understanding what the point is. I mean, when a web app is just an app that runs in a browser, and all you have on your system for accessing apps is a browser, what’s the difference between installing an app and just having a bookmark to it in your browser?!

I guess the answer is around a) making it easy for users to find apps, and providing a space for reviews and that sort of thing; b) enabling a more integrated experience between a web app and the system being used; and c) creating a marketplace where paid-for apps can be, well, paid for.

One neat feature is that by using your Google account, you can sync your Chrome web app setup across machines – so if you log into your account on a different computer, albeit still using Chrome, then your apps come with you, which is cool for portability.

Here’s the video:

The good news about the Chrome store is that folk using the Chrome browser on their usual computer can make use of it. There seems to be a couple of example of Chrome web apps which aren’t available for other browsers – TweetDeck being one.

I’m not quite sure why this is, nor indeed if it is a good thing. There’s the possibility of certain apps only being available to users of certain browsers, which isn’t great.

Still, it’s another step forward for the mainstreaming of cloud computing and software-as-a-service in general.

There’s been quite a bit of talk of a government cloud infastructure as well as an app store for public service use. Indeed, some of these ideas are present in the Knowledge Hub project. The USA government has had an app store for a little while now.

As we pass from the age of the stationary microcomputer and the software industry into a world of commodity computing, understanding the benefits of the approach will be vital – and not just for those working in IT. Indeed, the role of IT departments in organisations will almost certainly need a rethink.

Adventures in open source land

UbuntuI had a load of fun yesterday being a total geek and installing Ubuntu on a netbook I’ve have for a little while and which doesn’t get used an awful lot. It’s a Samsung NC10, which, as I mentioned in this post, is a nice machine for social reporting due to its small size and light weight. Since I got the Macbook Air, though, I’ve tended to use that for general laptop use and for reporting at events – leaving the NC10 sat on the shelf.

I’ve wanted a Linux based machine for a few months just to play with, really. For the uninitiated, Linux is an open source operating system – in other words a replacement for Windows, or Mac OSX. It’s the bit of software that makes all the boring stuff work behind the scenes, and provides the launchpad for the applications on your computer to do their stuff, like surfing the web, or writing documents, or editing photos.

Now, Linux comes in many different flavours. Some you have to pay for, others you don’t. There’s Fedora, or Mandriva, or Suse, or Debian, or many, many others. I chose Ubuntu as it is one of the free (as in beer) ones, and because it seems to be one of the most accessible – ie it’s easy to install and easy to use. I do think that the plethora of choices is probably something that holds people back from trying Linux though. It’s a bit like trying to choose what to drink in a coffee shop!

Even better, there’s a sub-flavour of Ubuntu known as Netbook Remix, especially designed for use on small and slow laptops like the NC10. As you can see from the image above, open source doesn’t mean you lose out on eye candy – it’s a lovely looking system, with a netbook-friendly user interface that’s dead simple to use.

Installing it wasn’t too hard in the end, though I did run into problems. This is because the NC10 lacks a CD or DVD drive, meaning I had to install via a USB stick. I downloaded the Ubuntu software as an ISO file (which you would normally burn to a CD), then had to download another bit of software, recommended by Matt Jukes, called Unetbootin. This allowed me to ‘burn’ the ISO file to a USB stick. The next job was to tell the NC10 to boot from this USB stick – rather than the internal hard drive – when I restarted the machine. This proved tricky, and only worked when I completely removed the hard drive from the priority list of devices to boot from.

After I fixed that, though, installation was pain free, and the computer attached itself quite happily to my home wireless network – which was something I feared might go wrong. Other stuff like the built in webcam and microphone worked fine too, which was great.

Once Ubuntu was installed, it was a case of finding what extra software was needed to be added. Ubuntu comes with a great range of open source software out of the box, with everything most people would need, from Firefox for web browsing, Evolution as an email client, for productivity stuff etc etc. Indeed, the whole idea of netbooks is of course that you use web based tools as much as possible, so having lots of software installed on the system is kind of missing the point.

Point missing being a stock in trade of mine, I set about adding a bunch of tools to the computer. This can either be very simple, or a bit tricky. There are two ways you can do it simply: first by using the Ubuntu software centre to add open source software to the computer. This is great – you literally just search for what you want, and then in a couple of clicks, it is installed and ready to use. Some software isn’t available from the centre, but is still easy to install, usually just by downloading and running a package from the relevant website.

The tricky bit is when the software you want to install contains propriatory elements, and so doesn’t qualify to be a part of the Ubuntu software centre. I found this with Skype, and to install this, I had to get my hands dirty by using the command line – quite a strange experience in 2010 (I know there is a terminal available in Mac OSX, but I have never found the need to use it). However, one of the strengths of the open source community is the huge amount of documentation available, and Ubuntu is no exception. The support is generally excellent, and these beginners’ problems are covered in depth.

The extra software I have installed includes:

  • Google’s Chrome browser
  • Skype for voice-over-IP calls
  • Filezilla – FTP client
  • Dropbox for online file sharing across all my computers
  • Liferea – an RSS reader which can sync with Google Reader. This seemed to struggle with my subscription list though – perhaps due to a lack of processing grunt and memory on the NC10
  • Tweetdeck – which also needed Adobe Air installing first, which was another command line pain. Like Liferea, Tweetdeck ran quite slowly on the NC10, so I gave it up for a web based client
  • The GIMP for image editing
  • Quanta Plus for HTML and PHP editing

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the results. This will have breathed a bit of new life into a machine I had little use for before, and it has been an interesting experience to find out how easy it is to use Linux based software. In many ways the operating system argument is irrelevant these days as more and more services are made available in the cloud. This is certainly the aim for Google, whose Chrome operating system will do little more than connect people to the web through a browser. But it is nice to know that you don’t need to have a high spec computer, or a load of expensive software, to have a mostly easy to use, and very nice to look at, computing experience.

Big thanks to Matt Jukes, Mark O’Neill, Harry Harrold, Tony Malloy, David Wenban, Adam McGreggor and others for their Twitter support throughout this process!

Clear your desk(top)

AJ’s blog features a nice piece on keeping your desktop free. It’s Windows specific, but the principles could be applied to any OS, I guess.

I am with him on this one. The idea of having icons on the desktop is inefficient and, well, rubbish. I use my desktop purely as a temporary holding station for downloaded files before they are put away or deleted. By the time I switch my PC off at night, there is only the Recycle Bin left on show. Because of this use of the desktop as a place for downloaded files I don’t follow AJ’s advice that you should use the Windows option to turn all icons off – they can be handy sometimes.

I also very, very rarely touch the Start menu – again, I just think that they are rubbish, and it depressed me a bit when I installed Ubuntu and Mandriva and found that they use a similar system. I personally use a quick-launch bar, with all the apps on it I use regularly, which is displayed at the top of the screen and which autohides when not in use.

I still think the most efficient and the most user-friendly way of operating a PC is through the keyboard. When I had Google Desktop Search installed on my old PC, I really liked the little search field on the sidebar that would auto-complete and hunt out whatever I was after, whether a file or an application. This sort of thing would form the basis of my ideal OS.

Instead of having to click on a box, though, you should be able to just start typing. Where there is more than one file with a similar name, such as a word processed document, a spreadsheet, an email and a webpage with the same name, then options appear to let me choose which one I want. Likewise, an option could appear to create a new document of some sort with that name.

So, no matter what you are doing, the method of doing it is the same. This could be taken further with task based search words, so I could type “burn cd” which would locate the CD burning software on my machine. The search “type letter” would bring up a word processor. This way, the need to know exactly what bit of software performs which task would disappear.