Google Chrome, Metro-Style

Windows 8 is a pretty bold new move for Microsoft. It’s bright, vivid, touch friendly and puts apps and contents way up top. It appears to have ditched the traditional desktop metaphor and filesystem. Apps look very different. Here’s what Internet Explorer 10 looks like:

IE10

That new look and feel for apps is being referred to as “Metro-style”. Metro-style apps run fullscreen and navigation happens through edge-activated interfaces. While I’m concerned about discoverability for edge-activated interface controls (essentially this is classic mystery meat navigation), I do like that apps are full-screen and that Metro-style apps ditch all archaic notions of UI chrome.

Which brings me to Google Chrome, capital C. Really great browser, my such of choice. From a high-level perspective, Google built this browser to accelerate the pace of web technology development, so that Googles own web-apps — Gmail, Calendar, Docs — could adopt newer features sooner. To that end, Google has gone to great lengths to make sure Chrome is not only cross-platform (Windows, Mac, Linux, soon Android), but that Chrome looks native to each platform. This tenet has been taken to the extreme, actually, with Chrome on Windows XP featuring the horrible “Luna” skin, and Chrome on Linux more or less establishing GTK as the de-facto UI toolkit on the platform, just to be able to use said toolkit. It’s really quite impressive, the amount of work put into making Chrome not only look native, but be native.

Of course we’re only on the cusp of the future. The next round of operating systems are likely to be much more mobile inspired. Windows is blazing a trail with adopting the Windows Phone Metro UI, OSX is likely to become even more iOS-like, and Ubuntu is already exploring more touch-friendly UIs. If Google is going to keep following the path of full-on nativity, Chrome engineers are going to be having some nasty headaches in the not too distant future. Is it even technically possible to replace Internet Explorer 10 as your browser of choice? With Windows 8 treating HTML5 web-apps as first-class citizens among native apps, it’s likely that IE is baked in to the operating system more deeply than it ever was before.

It’s also an interesting mind-game, imagining what Google Chrome would look like, if it were to theoretically be re-written as a Metro-style Windows 8 app. The Metro-style UI is already so minimalist in layout, icon style and even interaction patterns that it’s difficult to think of Metro-style Chrome looking very much different from IE10. The racing-car diagonal tabs for instance, which are important to Chrome’s branding, are hard to translate to Metro-style. Though I suppose if Google were to go this way, they could make their tabs look similar to those of the Android Honeycomb browser (which is likely to spell the direction of how Chrome will look like on Android, once that happens).

Will it happen? I think so, but I think Google will want to play the wait-and-see game for a while. Just like Android Ice Cream Sandwich may be a make-or-break proposition for Google, so do I think that Windows 8 is for Microsoft. Could be that Windows 8 adoption is too slow to worry about. Could be Google’s already working on Metro-style Chrome.

The Weird Voodoo Necessary To Spawn Great Apps On Your Platform

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“Android users don’t buy apps”, people will tell you. I have no idea whether that’s true, but I do know I switched to The Mac in part due to the presence of great apps, apps not present on Windows. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that a platform will gain in popularity by virtue of having great apps. Which makes launching new platforms difficult. Inherently, new platforms won’t have many apps at launch and unless some really good ones are written fast, your platform might never take off.

Let’s define a great app as being an app that’s simple, beautiful, solves a problem for you, and is fast and stable.

I like Windows. I’ve used it for a decade. There are window-management features I still miss, having switched. I hope Windows 8 will do great. But I can’t say Windows ever had great apps; Windows had good apps. I particularly miss Directory Opus, an over-the-top-powerful file management application with integrated FTP, regex file renamer and too many nice features to mention. This was a good app, and I would love a Mac version. But it’s not a beautiful app. It’s got an uninspiring icon, the UI is cluttered by default, the bundled icons don’t look good and the app itself is only as pretty as Windows native UI is. But does it matter that an app isnt’ beautiful?

My noodling on the matter says yes. During the formative months or years of a new operating system — case in point, OSX — the apps that come out will generally dicatate what follows for that platform. If a slew of functional, great-looking apps come out, these apps will define where the bar is set. Once the platform, for a variety of reasons including the presence of aforementioned apps becomes popular enough, it will obviously attract a slew of crappy apps as well, sure. But the higher the bar was set initially, the fewer crap apps will follow. There’s simply no need to look beyond that one app that filled a niche.

Back when I was still powerusing Windows, ALT-tabbing and generally working things to my liking, I was surprised at my Mac friends and their utter determination to make sure all their dock icons were pretty. Sure, I can appreciate a good icon design, but an app can be good without a great icon, can’t it? This mac-using-friend-determination went further and involved criticising the lack of native UI in the Firefox browser, an otherwise tech-hipster darling at the time. I couldn’t care less at the time. As Yogi Berra said: if the app is good the app is good. Right?

Right. And also sometimes wrong. Windows has good apps, but few of them are beautiful. That’s how it’s always been. As the PC has grown from its DOS infancy, apps have improved in both features and looks. But Windows itself, although functional, was never particularly beautiful to look at. Almost reflecting this, neither were Windows apps. Still, it was the platform with the most apps by far, probably still is. The downside is that most of them are crap. Google windows video converter and you’ll more results than is funny. How are you going to find the one good one among them?

The Mac, on the other hand, made a clean break with OSX. Apps had to be rewritten from scratch, and the operating system itself had received a “lickable” design — it was very pretty to look at by yesteryears standards. The Mac was in a bad place at the time, marketshare-wise, so the trickle of new OSX-ready apps wasn’t overwhelming. Still, because of the clean break and the presence of a userbase, apps did appear. For some reason, these apps were simple, beautiful and userfriendly. Like the OS. You could think the Mac developers at the time felt their apps should reflect the sense of taste the OS itself exuded. Whatever happened, a philosophy of building the one app to rule each niche seems to have been born at this time. Microsoft never made this clean break with Windows, so there was never an opportunity for developers to stop and rethink their apps, and the standard for “pretty” was never very high. The result is a billion apps that do the same thing, because no developer filled a niche in any significant fashion.

I sound like a long-time Apple lover, which I’m not. I switched to The Mac because of the UNIX commandline. Make no mistake about it, there are things about The Mac Way that I sincerely loathe. OSX Lion, for example, is the worst $29 I’ve spent in years. I’m also firmly entrenched with The Android, the Gmail app and seamless syncing is enough to ensure that.

But thinking about the weird voodoo necessary for a new platform to take off, it’s really hard to get around both the Mac and the iPhones portfolio of apps and the standard they’ve set. While it’s all a bunch of evening noodling and gut-feelings, this all tells me that if you want great apps on your platform, you need to combine a beautiful UI with a clean break. It appears Microsoft may be taking this route. Android take note.

Whither Web-Apps

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The web changed things. It’s dictated the path of Android, iOS and Chrome OS. All three are operating systems that approach menial computer tasks in an entirely different way:

  • they store things in the cloud
  • they hide the filesystem from you
  • they’ve shed the shackles of the traditional desktop and windowing metaphor

We no longer have to discuss whether it was actually Xerox PARC that invented the “Recycle Bin” concept, we can instead discuss whether we even need one1. It’s exciting. A computer no longer has to have a floppy or a disc drive. In fact, often times you don’t even need a keyboard. In the future, we might not need a physical interface at all, controlling everything with voice and gestures. It’s as if the new way has uprooted us from the rut of putting application links in a dock and discussing whether the window close button should be in the top left or the top right corner. Everything is different, and we can thank Apple first and Google second, for finally bringing us this much needed paradigm shift. In one key area of this exciting new future, however, Google and Apple differ in their approaches.

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  1. The answer is yes, but not for files. Could be for closed tabs, or it could hold an “Undo” history perhaps.  

Android OS vs. Chrome OS

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Google’s IO keynote is over. One day was dedicated to Chrome OS, another to Android OS — one day for each of Googles operating systems. Here’s what thay said about the next Android OS, Ice Cream Sandwich:

Our goal with Ice Cream Sandwich is to deliver one operating system that works everywhere, regardless of device. Ice Cream Sandwich will bring everything you love about Honeycomb on your tablet to your phone, including the holographic user interface, more multitasking, the new launcher and richer widgets.

So naturally, people are asking: if the goal is one OS for all devices, why does Chrome OS exist?

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Use Microsofts official Internet Explorer Virtual PC testing images in VirtualBox on OSX

If you need to test Internet Explorer 6 on your Mac, but don’t want to resort to multibooting, you can download the free VirtualBox software, and grab one of Microsofts free VirtualPC testing images and get up and running.

  1. Download a VPC image of your choice.
  2. Rename the .exe file to .rar, then unpack using a RAR unpacker on the Mac
  3. Create a new Virtual Machine in Virtualbox. When you get the chance to select an existing disk, do that and point to the VPC image.
  4. Boot. The VPC image may require activation and/or a password (which resides inside the .txt file that came with the VPC image)

Yep. There’s the activation hassle. It’s Microsoft. What did you expect? It’s still easier than manually installing Windows XP.

Android MIUI Mini-Review

MIUI is a japanese chinese (apologies, ed.) homebrew version of Googles Android operating system. It is installable via strange super-user voodoo, a process which is not for the faint of heart. I’ve talked about it before, but in a fit of boredom, I installed it. Here’s a mini-review.

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The first thing you’ll notice in MIUI is that it’s replaced the default Droid Sans font with Helvetica, system-wide. From then on, it’s clear that Apples iOS has been the main inspiration for this Android custom ROM. This not only goes for the font, but it goes for the settings design, the semi-transparent statusbar and even to concepts such as the lack of an app-drawer, forcing all apps onto the homescreens. This last concept makes a lot of sense, and in the MIUI implementation, you get the added abillity to sort freely where your icons are placed — not just their order. That, and widgets and other Android niceties, of course.

miui_apps miui_folders2 miui_settings

In many ways, MIUI is tasteful. The lockscreen, while suffering from the same “too easy to unlock” stupidity as the HTC Sense lockscreen, is very pretty, and the stack of default wallpapers (even this stack is inspired by iOS) is gorgeous.

miui_themes

I’ve previously argued that building an entire Android distribution, just to be redesign the skin a little bit, is a bad idea. That said, MIUI does utilize the extra responsibility to do some neat tricks, such as the widget organizer as well as the statusbar tray power control.

miui_tray miui_widgets

In the end, however, MIUI does suffer from fragmentation-itis, and so you can expect instability to be inherent. Which once again illustrates the really basic concept: building an entire operating system is hard and difficult work. Forking a path in the road simply to be able to change the skin and add a few features, I find, is a waste of time; time better spent building the individual features and themes into Android Market apps.

miui_crash

Gmail Creator Paul Buchheit: Chrome OS Will Perish Or “Merge” With Android

Gmail Creator Paul Buchheit:

Prediction: ChromeOS will be killed next year (or “merged” with Android)

People don’t get it — I didn’t at first. Chrome OS is there to replace Windows XP for hospitals, municipalities, large corporations, clothing shops for inventory management, gyms, etc. Anywhere browser-based apps only are used, Chrome OS is going to be huge.

Sure, we’ll see Chrome on Android, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that Chrome OS is to Chrome what XBMC Live is to XBMC. It’s Chrome plus a wafer thin client, for the markets that need just that. Which is a lot of markets.