Chrome OS for web mapping delivery

10 Dec 11 The first year with the Cr-48 — perspective on how Chrome OS makes sense

About a year ago, I filled out some fortuitous web page, was one of the first two in my Zip code to do so, and bang!  The next afternoon, there was this awesome little package on my doorstep.    This morning, I found myself contemplating cosmic alignments both large and small.  First the large:

 Then the small: with great good fortune, the Cr-48′s arrival coincided with my returning to some part-time college teaching responsibilities, on top of a regular full-time job with our local county making maps.  As a geophysics graduate student, I started building customized hardware about 25 years ago; the insights gained then through some strenuous effort have rooted into a deeper-than-average understanding of desktop, workstation, and small server technologies—specifically when related to physical modeling of geospatial phenomena, digital cartography and imaging, and applications of photogrammetry or the measurement of quantitative things from photo images.

Thanks in part to my mix of paying work during 2011, I’ve found reason to use Chrome OS, Ubuntu, Android and Windows nearly every single day.  My workplaces do not provide them, and I choose not to afford Apple products beyond an iPod Touch; I spent my time in the Reality Distortion Field between 1990–1994 using, promoting, and being trained to develop for  NeXT workstations—and it’s those innovations that I perceive add most of the value to the OS side of OS X and iOS.  I saw how much Apple focused on getting their products into the hands of students, and supporting the app environment; I’m not writing about the iPad that my kid’s using in Kindergarten—I’m writing about the Apple II and the lock it had on educational software.

I was there, watching a Super Bowl game with friends and fellow students at Stanford, when Apple aired the flagrantly copyright-violating “1984″ TV advertisement announcing the Macintosh.  It was an innovation, and its interface was attractive even while its performance echoed my Osborne 1 dual-floppy system.  But that was a different time, when professors still had secretaries to do their typing, and the Macintosh, when it was embraced by someone besides a grateful administrative assistant, was the first choice of those who were uncomfortable with computing devices of the time.  Apple built on this market to bolster the confidence of its Macintosh users  with advertising images that conveyed how hey, even if you’re still a bit uncomfortable with computing, you’re really cool because you’re using a mouse!  From those years to the present day, my oft-validated perspective is that mainstream users of Apple computing devices (professional graphics, music, and video editors aside) are spending their way to consumer coolness rather than building their skills to output creative greatness.  I can understand why people want to have the computer get out of the way of their communication with friends and consumption of media; for most of my work, it’s important to have strong facility with the device, and be comfortable with several platforms.  ’nuff said.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time scratching my head about what Chrome OS is for, what it’s all about, and why the Cr-48 should exist.

For about a year before the Cr-48 showed up, I’d been using an Android reference platform, the T-Mobile G1, migrated up through Froyo using Cyanogen Mod.  About eight months ago, I grew tired of stability challenges on the modded G1 and bumped up to another reference platform, the Nexus S on T-Mobile, now rooted but not ahead of T-Mo release versions of Gingerbread.  My use of Android phones, and appreciation for how the feature set has grown from excitements about Cupcake updates to now were a source of interest in the Google TV platform.  So I got first one, then a second of these Android Eclair devices with big screens.  They are both updated to Honeycomb at this time, and we’ve kept the cable subscription at the sub-basic level with only local broadcast and public access channels.  Everything else, content-wise, is from Netflix, Sony Qriocity, Amazon Video, or a few DVD and BD discs.  I don’t sense a lot of overlap between the TV and phone device uses of Android, but I do recognize that related versions of the same OS are doing moderately different things pretty well in both cases.

But it’s my college teaching job that has really catalyzed my understanding of how Chrome OS makes sense.  There, I sometimes need to create maps for lecture slides.  In a few local cases, there are specific county data sets that I’ve already worked up  using Windows 7, some maps I make at home using ArcGIS and Windows XP, some Google Docs presentations prepared on my home Ubuntu workstation, and last-minute changes from the Student Union using the Cr-48.   Depending on the lab I’m teaching in I’ll either use the Cr-48 itself hooked to a projector, or install Chrome SXS / Canary on the instructor Windows 7 workstation that is already hooked to the projector and either run Google Docs from there, or download a PDF and present from that if there’s any problem with connectivity.

So thanks to my teaching work, and having to fit it into spare moments around a regular full-time job, I have really come to appreciate how the cloud makes me more efficient at preparing lectures.  Whatever workstation or machine I’m at, I just use it for whatever it does best, and the results quickly build toward my final lecture.  I believe that it takes me only 1/3 the time to prepare a lecture than it did when I was exporting presentations in various MS Office formats, and carrying them around on a thumb drive, or posting them for download, or e-mailing them to myself as attachments.  Now, using Google Docs, I am effectively collaborating with myself when I’m working from various different contexts.

And although it’s not concise, that context is why Chrome OS makes sense to me.  Sure, when I think of the folks at the Googleplex and around the world working to move Chromium and Chromium OS projects forward and product-ize it into browser and OS forms, there is a warm spot in my heart, for the insight and rationality I sense in the directions chosen that makes me think back to Stanford where some sense of tribal affinity is felt, a sense that I do not hold in a comparable way for teams centered at Cupertino or Redmond.  I’m reading or at least searching news items related to Android and Chrome OS daily, and I try to maintain a current sense of where at least some voices think these projects are going.

But my take seems just a bit different.  Perhaps it’s the affinity that I mention above, where I’m really expecting some underlying insightful if not brilliant architecture to emerge.  That’s the template that I fit news items against.  Sometimes things related to Chrome OS really aren’t all that great.

Like why, after all the agony caused by the oversized track pads, haven’t Samsung and Acer developed trapezoidal ones, rather than rectangular ones?   Seriously, even if the touch sensors aren’t denser at the narrower top end, the response could be adapted in software by an affine mapping of the narrower-at-the-top trapezoid into a rectangle for feeding the OS touch events…

But I’m immersed in at least a weekly cycle of Windows XP, Windows 7, Ubuntu, Chrome OS, and Android.  In all but the phone environment, the Chrome browser is the common thread.  And that’s where it all makes sense to me.  My insight was piqued within the last month when one day (and it was really only there one day, as best I can tell) the Chrome Canary browser displayed a little green up-arrow icon by its wrench telling me that it might be time to update.  Whoa.  That little icon broke down a mental barrier that I’d been holding up between my use of Chrome OS and the various contexts of Chrome browser use.

Then it all came in a cascade of “oh yea…” experiences.  Like the day that I had a technical support challenge at work and wasn’t configured for  VNC access yet one of my colleagues, knowing me as a Chrome chauvinist, suggested that we solve the problem using Chrome Remote Desktop.  I installed the extension and it worked perfectly.  I’ve since used it behind and through firewalls.  And Google Cloud Print has been important enough to my use of the Cr-48 that it has attenuated my use of Chromium browser.  I’m willing to be 72 hours behind Chromium and running Chrome SXS just so that I can run Cloud Print.  In a way reflecting all of the cloudy goodness that makes it possible for me to fuse graphics from many different platforms into lecture slides, having any old machine that I’m logged into and running Chrome able to serve up its printer connections is wonderful in an over-the-top sort of way.  I mean really, I’ve never ever had a seamless cross-platform, cross-site unified list of output devices before, and yet there it is, all available to me with the Cr-48.

In the past year, I’ve never had the Cr-48 plugged into the home network via cable—because I can’t!  But there it is, whether it’s using a personal router at the college, some sort of wireless connection at work, or is just in the vicinity of the home network, it’s as if I had Unix CUPS running on the Chromebook.  But I don’t need to.  As long as I’ve worked out the printer settings for whatever machine I’ve got going at different workplaces, they are ready for me to use from the Cr-48 whenever I’m close to the printer.

The last piece of the puzzle that helps me feel that Chrome OS makes supreme sense as a reference platform is multiple Google Account profiles.  Again, this was prompted by my teaching work.  Of course the college has a Learning Management System (LMS) that offers e-mail, class web page, and the ability to post files.  But I wanted to help the class learn more about using the cloud, so I have strongly encouraged them to create their term essays not just in electronic form, but in the cloud, shared with me rather than sent as an e-mail attachment.

This meant that I encouraged some students to try out Google Docs who had not used it before; they were not required to use Docs for its document-composing applications if they did not want to, as long as they uploaded their report to their Google Docs account and shared it with me before the deadline.  Those using MS Word 2010 were sometimes uploading their reports in .docx format, but over the past couple of weeks, those are now just opening inline within Google Docs, almost no matter what their size.  In this way, I was able to accommodate students using lab workstations, home Windows machines, home Macs, or even home Linux.  But to manage the deluge of reports, I created a separate Google Account for myself, specifically to interact with the students and their reports.
(There’s much more to be said about what that means in terms of Google Voice for each account, and the way that Android provides a control panel for the multiple accounts’ Gmail and Google+ streams, but that’s for another day)

And that brought me, in the last month, to a much clearer awareness of the nature of multiple login profiles, the partitioning of services among different Google Accounts, and ways to architect free cloud services into a system that supports my needs as an instructor, as a county worker, and even as a household member.    With Chrome OS, I can get some functionality across accounts for viewing, but write permissions are most reliable when only one Google Account is logged in on all tabs.  With Chrome SXS browser, each different Google account opens in its own browser window with its own set of tabs, and to a greater extent each window is its own sandbox across the workstation’s dual screens.

To summarize what feels like insight, a common-sense perspective from my specific use case, Chrome OS makes infinite sense as a reference platform for the OS that is growing inside the Chrome browser.  Remote Desktop, Cloud Printing, and multiple simultaneous logins mean that the basic Chrome OS is evolving within the latest browsers.  In case “latest” browser doesn’t make specific sense, for the last three weeks or so I’ve been running updates in the range of Chrome 17.x.x.

To me, it seems rather profound to have OS-style functionality growing inside the Chrome browser.  After all, aren’t there perfectly good versions of the Chromium browser in OS X, MS Windows, variations of Linux, on x86, x86_64, and ARM processors?  The memory footprint of Chrome is not so heavy that it screams “sandboxed OS!” to most users.  But as web sites grow the functionality of their apps toward desktop-grade  product, as Javasript runs faster each quarter, then what happens?

I’m suggesting that what happens is that most of the functionality that I’ve been living with as the Cr-48 has evolved over the past year will be existing, implanted in the most popular desktop systems worldwide if the desktop has Chrome browser installed.  That means the Cr-48 is not so much a reference platform for Chromebooks as it is the reference platform for the OS-in-a-browser that will just be there, all over the place, ready to consume upgraded web apps.  Right now I experience it with WebGL in Google Maps, but what of a browser-embedded OS able to run Native Client apps?  Then as functionality of cloud web apps grows, performance may grow right along with them in a very appealing way.   This week I saw the amazing work at being used by third-graders—and it gave me great hope for children learning spatial literacy, but it required the Unity game engine plugin; if NaCl in Chrome makes that happen, I will be a happy camper (and parent).

Downsides could be that the Chrome browser runs away with fancy functionality that won’t track with WebKit or V8 alone.  I really enjoyed reading the post last week by Nexx positing Chrome browser as the next IE6 and it made sense.  IE6 was disruptive in its time because it was fast and capable, but became a problem when it diverged from standards supported by other browsers so that web sites contorted themselves to work well in IE6 at the expense of working as well for most other browsers.   I’m not certain that all angles of Nexx’s analogy are equally sharp (in the sense of being pointedly applicable to Chrome), and yet I’m not seeing any bright line separating Chromebooks in total as a reference platform for Chrome the OS-in-a-browser.

Product-wise, I’m still of a mind, same as six months ago, that a  transformative and necessary price point will be to have at least a two-threaded, 16 GB, 3G wireless Chromebook available at $249 including the 100MB/mo “free” 3G data.  That is a space where wallets will open, popularity will swell, and Chromebooks will find their place in the world of devices.   It’s also a space that could be invigorated  by student communities who want to produce cool stuff more than flaunt a cool and pricey device—and who are knowledgeable enough to gather their thought-nutrition from the Internet directly.  In that world, at least from where I write, iTunes would be on its way toward looking like Prodigy of the early 1990′s, yet another attractive walled garden where the price of admission is an open tab on your credit card.

This post, like most of the ones before it over the past year, have been pounded out on a Mario keyboard.  As of today’s update, its tagline reads:

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; CrOS i686 1412.7.0) AppleWebKit/535.11 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/17.0.963.2 Safari/535.11

Or as I’ve usually posted it:
Chrome OS  1412.7.0  (Official Build) dev-channel x86-mario
Google Chrome  17.0.963.2
WebKit   535.11 (@102287)
Firmware   Mario.03.60.1120.0038G5.0018d

One year on, and grearing up for the next, Happy First Drop Day, Mario  (the day that FedEx dropped you on my doorstep)

17 Jul 11 Cr-48 back from the road – with stickers!

My Cr-48 got to make its first trip to the tropics with almost a couple of weeks on windward Oahu.  The Verizon 3G service was a bit spotty, but the beach house where we stayed had stompin’ fast cable Internet.  Things worked well and I actually kept up with work e-mail to an annoying extent, using MS OWA.  The Mario now has a fetching gecko sticker (from the 7-11 in Kaaawa, Oahu), and a Kanvas by Katin sticker from Surfside, CA.

Back home, I turned around for a trip to San Diego for an international user conference, and again I found myself with spotty Verizon 3G action, but plenty of WiFi grazing to be done at the hotel and Convention Center both.  I tried to blog some notes real time in several sessions, and then I had some trouble.

On the ChromeOS side, as I often write, I’m keeping up with dev builds on the Cr-48.  What has happened several times is that when an update is available, and pending install or waiting for a ChromeOS restart, the Verizon 3G ceases to log in.   When I do need it, that’s a problem; often the state I have found myself in is that ChromeOS updates are downloaded and pending a restart while the machine is at home sitting on WiFi, so there’s no hit to Verizon data for the restart.  The ChromeOS update download will not initiate when I’ve only got a 3G connection, which is helpful for keeping my usage under 100 MB/month.

Somewhere between Hawaii and San Diego, I snuck into the office for a few hours and a colleague called me up asking about Google+, which I’d looked at and dropped my e-mail account into (yes, the correct site—not the phishing one).  But that week, right when he’d called, I went back and it just asked me for my Google account login.  And I was in.  I thanked him for goading me into checking it out by sending him an invite.

So I found myself in a technical workshop with my Cr-48 on my lap and WiFi working well in the room.  I started using Google+ to blog the session and got myself worked up to a good number of paragraphs.  Somehow, with age, I may not be able to multitask like some recent college graduates—and yet I find that my skills as listening to a speaker and composing complete sentences in real time that summarize their content have grown considerably.  Perhaps this is the sort of multitasking that makes journalists…

Anyway, I found myself several paragraphs into Google+ posting, and getting annoyed at how touchy my touchpad had become since the Cr-48 came back from Hawaii.  Well, poof!  went my cursor off the text entry point, and zap! went all my words.  Big downside of not using pen-and-ink; In the process of live-blogging the tech workshop, I really wasn’t quite as deeply focused on how I might use the information.  I was mostly just saving it for myself.  Too bad.

That sort of touchpad annoyance, not seen on my Mario since late December/early January, was really a problem during the conference.  I worked around it by writing into Google Docs, but it wasn’t quite as nice as posting one item per session like I was trying to do.   I filed a gripy bug report with ChromeOS team while I was still down in San Diego.

Friday, a new update arrived (I haven’t mentioned those I got in Hawaii).
Chrome OS 751.0
Google Chrome 14.0.818.0
v8  3.4.11
WebKit  535.1

…and guess what?  No more trackpad woes!  Many thanks to the ChromeOS team who are caring for us Cr-48 users ;^)