joe moon

Holding the Web in Your Hands

I’m typing this on a Cr-48, Google’s pilot hardware for Chrome OS. On Wednesday at the second keynote address of Google I/O, their developer conference, Google announced that final retail hardware will be available this Summer from Samsung and Acer. The day before, at the first keynote, they announced Android Ice Cream Sandwich (no version number yet), which will unify the OS across phones, tablets, and Google TV.

While at first glance it may seem like Android and Chrome OS target the same space, the respective tones of the two keynotes and the pricing models of the coming Chromebooks indicate the following break-down: Android for consumers; Chrome OS for enterprise.

That axis is interesting in certain respects, but it’s not the one I find most interesting: Android for touch interface; Chrome OS for separate hardware inputs.[^1]

Since the original iPad’s introduction, I’ve been ambivalent about the form factor. On one hand, its direct manipulation interface paradigm (and especially Apple’s groundbreaking execution of it) is intuitive, powerful, and genuinely fun. On the other, it’s restrictive: the interaction bandwidth is simply less than the venerable mouse + keyboard combination; and the metaphor itself, while making certain interactions–like swiping and pinch-to-zoom–natural, narrows the available input options, relegating anything more than the first-order gestures to hidden, basically undiscoverable gestures that bear no relation to the metaphor.[^2]

Text input is another problem. The on-screen keyboard–even with automatic–real-time error correction, is no substitute for a real hardware keyboard.[^3] It’s transient and stultifying, which can’t but inform the text that passes through it to some, however vanishing, degree. The form factor itself, furthermore, ergonomically discourages text input.[^4]

Technology as Philosophy

My biggest gripe about the iPad is that it’s a reversion to pre-internet media values. If implementations of technology are founded on philosophical assumptions, the old broadcast media systems like television and radio are founded on authoritarian, heirarchical ones. A (more or less) centralized, consolidated authority produced the content that the rest of us used to sit back and consume. In this respect, the personal computing and internet revolutions–and blogging, specifically–were intrinsically democratizing ones. The iPad is a betrayal/reversal of this trend, a device that’s optimized for passive consumption, the interface optimized for interaction with the device, instead of interaction with other people.[^5]

The Chromebook, conversely, is an open embrace of the web.[^6][^7] It’s an instantiation of the promise of the removal of every barrier between us and a place where we can congregate, communicate, and collaborate freely, as well as an investment in a future where all of our computing is accessible from anywhere, from any device.

I submit, too, that the laptop form factor is a more democratic one. In lieu of a claustrophobic software keyboard, it dedicates half of the visible hardware to input, metaphorically elevating the user’s production to the same level of importance as her consumption. It says something about what the purpose of the device is: to participate in the global conversation, in the exchange of ideas.

This ad introducing the Chromebook asserts that it’s not a laptop, or even a computer. Instead, “it actually IS the web.” It’s a beautiful dream.


[^1]: Tentative plans for a Chrome OS tablet have not come to fruition, at least not yet.

[^2]: Even Apple has had to resort to things like three- and four-finger swiping gestures that map to commands that have no intuitive mapping to the the gestures. I’ve written more about the limitations of a the direct manipulation paradigm here.

[^3]: The tactile feedback of a physical keyboard is difficult to replicate. I’d hoped that Swype or other software keyboard technologies would succeed at routing around this problem, but in my experience you still have to pay attention to both the keyboard and the text you’re producing which is a lot of mental overhead that the tactile feedback of keyboards obviates. Blind type seems like it’s close to a solution, but I haven’t gotten to try it yet.

[^4]: This is a big enough problem that Bev puts down the iPad and grabs her iPhone to write emails.

[^5]: I think this bears out, too, in Old Media’s enthusiastic embrace of the iPad as a publishing platform, despite Apple’s fairly draconian restrictions and price structure.

[^6]: Of course, Google, as a company, constitutionally embraces the web.

[^7]: I do have misgivings, though, about the “cloud” model, and giving up control of our data and identities to corporations.