Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Everything's Coming Up Google: Android and Chrome at Google I/O

There's been quite a bit of new coming out of Google I/O (Google's developer conference) this week, and a lot of it is pretty damn noteworthy, whether or not you're a user of the Android operating system or the Chrome web browser.

With some simple hardware and software, Google is planning on fighting both Apple and Microsoft on multiple fronts: the company's Chrome OS is targeted toward light-use Windows machines, Android continues to poke iOS with a pretty big stick, and Google is very much knocking on the doors of businesses (who like Microsoft products) and educational institutions (who like Apple products). Let's check out some of the stuff they're selling.


The first Android-related bit of news affects the, like, twelve of you who bought the Motorola Xoom tablet - Android 3.1 came out this week, and those of you with Xooms should see their tablets updating from version 3.0 any time now if they haven't already. In lieu of introducing major new features, 3.1 seems mostly targeted toward sanding the rough edges off of the 3.0 release, which as some observed was not quite ready to be pushed out the door.

The one new feature being talked about is "USB host mode," which means that most USB devices (mice, keyboards, USB sticks, cameras, and even gamepads) will function with Android as they would when plugged into a PC. This is clearly an important development, and is a big step toward bridging the gap between a tablet (a content consumption device) and a computer (a content production device).

Looking a bit further into the future will introduce you to "Ice Cream Sandwich," the next major Android version. Its given raison d'ĂȘtre is to merge the tablet and phone versions of Android - many tablets are currently running Android 3.x, while phones are still using 2.x - similar to how current iOS 4.2 got the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch in sync with each other, software-wise.

This should make things a bit easier for both users and app developers - users get one consistent interface across all Android devices, and developers get one consistent bundle of code to write programs for. You know, provided that your carrier and phone manufacturer give you access to the update, and that your phone is powerful enough to run it.

Whether Google will begin exercising more control over Android's user interface and behavior in its efforts to reduce the fragmentation that plagues the platform remains to be seen, but the company did announce an initiative aimed at making phone makers to keep their Android handsets up to date with the latest software for at least 18 months after their release, if the hardware is willing. Like Ice Cream Sandwich's unification of the tablet and phone versions, this move should provide more consistency for both users and developers.

Chrome (the browser)

Meanwhile, in the Chrome camp, the innovations keep a-comin'. Google's vaunted 6-week development schedule continues to produce a new Chrome version every month and a half, introducing new features at a brisk pace unmatchable by Microsoft's or Mozilla's more monolithic updates. Chrome delivers small improvements quickly rather than large updates every couple years - Firefox 4 and Internet Explorer 9's recent releases brought some rather jarring changes to their respective platforms, which makes upgrading a bit more of a bother even though those browsers and Chrome share many of the same bullet-point-worthy features.

Google noted that JavaScript performance (at which it has excelled since its release) has stopped being a bottleneck in the modern browser, freeing Google and its competition to look to the next frontier: graphics acceleration. To understand why this is important, you need a bit of background on the history of the graphics processing unit (GPU).

For years, the GPU existed primarily to render programs that needed 3D - think mostly video games and drafting programs. When you needed it, it would fire up and render some polygons, and when you quit the application that was using it, it went back to just sitting there. For a long time, the Windows desktop looked and worked the same whether you had a crappy built-in GPU or a top-shelf, $500 add-in card.

More recently, developers have noticed that the GPU handles certain specialized tasks much more quickly than does the general-purpose central processing unit (CPU - think Intel Inside) of most computers. Since then, the benefits of having a capable GPU have multiplied - Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Mac OS X all use the GPU to enable flashy effects. Flash sites like YouTube and Hulu can use the GPU to enable smooth, reliable high-def video playback without murdering your computer's hardware. Production programs like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere can use the GPU to render high-resolution pictures and video in a fraction of the time it would take a CPU to do the same task. As a result of this, any off-the-shelf $500 computer you buy today is going to have at least a minimally capable GPU to perform these tasks, and that means that developers like Google can leverage it to great effect.

With their most recent releases, Web browsers have begun to take advantage of this latent GPU capability, and this is where Google wants to improve Chrome - it can use the GPU to enable in-browser games and apps that would have been impossible just a year or two ago on the exact same computer. Google is doing what I wish more software makers would do - they're enabling speed improvements not by forcing the user to buy expensive hardware, but simply by writing better, more feature-rich software. Score.

Chrome (the OS)

I know I'm running long, so I'll try to keep this short. Chrome OS is a complete computer operating system that's basically just the browser - instead of booting up Windows or Mac OS and then starting up Chrome and staying there, Chrome OS boots in eight seconds, loads Chrome, and that's it - all of your files and data exist out in The Cloud, rather than on your hard drive. For certain users performing certain tasks, this can be decidedly limiting, but for light users or power users who do all their work on the Web, this new OS has a lot of potential.

Google demoed Chrome OS on netbooks for the press and others a few months back, and have improved the OS based on feedback they received, including the ability to save and work with files on the local storage drive and a better implementation of Adobe Flash. The end result is an operating system which will soon be ready for public consumption - Samsung and Acer are set to begin selling netbooks running the Chrome OS (or, as Google calls them, Chromebooks) in June.

Of more interest, though, is Google's subscription plan for businesses and schools - businesses can get a Chromebook for $28 a month per user. This monthly fee covers not just free software updates, but also hardware updates (though Google didn't talk about how often hardware replacements would happen), and the ecosystem will include some management tools that will let businesses customize standard apps and settings for its users - this is functionality that is either limited or altogether absent on iOS platforms. Schools can get in on the same deal for just $20 a month.

This is a big deal, and it looks to disrupt Apple's traditionally cozy relationship with educational institutions. If it can catch on (and especially once Chrome desktops hit the scene), this sort of functionality could easily replace computer labs and data entry workstations in many areas.


Google is doing some pretty cool stuff. It remains to be seen how the market will react, but if the goal of these announcements was to get peoples' attention, they've succeeded: we're listening.