21 November, 2009

Google Chrome OS - First Impressions (or should I say, Disappointments!)

An early prototype of the much awaited Google Chrome OS was released a couple of days back, and as expected of any product announcement from Google, everyone in the tech world was excited, including me. This is a very early version of the Operating System, and the initial demo wasn't that impressive, but I wanted to have a go at it. Following TechCrunch's simple guide to install Chrome OS on a virtual machine, I loaded it up yesterday in VirtualBox.

The boot time of 7 seconds was indeed quite a feat (the intend to halve that by next year!), and I had no problems logging in with a Gmail/Google account (Warning: don't use your primary Gmail address if you intend to try it out yourself. Its a prototype, after all.). Chromium browser (the open-source counterpart of Google Chrome) loaded up, with a few changes to the UI to make it handle some things that traditional OSes have dealt with as a separate affair, like options to turn networks on & off, a rudimentary digital clock and a battery monitor.

Here is what's different (or rather, missing) in ChromeOS, compared to Windows, Linux et al. :
  • Cannot install applications; all applications are web services (websites)
  • Need Internet connectivity to even login, as ChromeOS uses your Gmail account for login and the app panel (its version of 'Quick-Launch' in Windows, and is like a tab inside the browser - but its not). Furthermore, as all apps are web apps, you can't do zilch without a decent net connection.
  • Does not (and will not) support existing desktops/ laptops/ netbooks/ smartphones, and requires specialized hardware designed specifically to run ChromeOS. If you want to run it somewhere other than a virtual machine, you need to wait for year for ChromeOS to be released as pre-installed OS on specialized netbooks with solid state hard drives (SSDs). ChromeOS is free, but the netbooks surely won't be.
  • There are no options to log out, shut down or restart, except using the power button. I guess logout is not really needed, all you have to do is logout of your browser session. But come on, a simple shut down button?
On the plus side, you'll never need to update anything - everything is stored online, including your data & customizations/settings, and you can access your data and programs from anywhere in the world, provided you have a stable connection to the net. For example, the app panel required a google.com login when I tried it out yesterday. But when I opened up the OS today, they had switched it to a regular google account, which meant that I could login with my Gmail username and password instead. To update the UI, all they have to do is change it at the server, and all users will instantly be upgraded to the latest version.

Some other things I noticed:
  • The file manager, accessible through the browser's open/save dialogues, is a chrome-less window, and reveals the Linux file system, on which it is based.
  • No desktop, no icons. Well, there is the app panel. None outside the browser - which is the OS, by the way. Technically, no other OSes have icons or wallpapers outside the OS, so its a moot point. Its a new way to look at it. (Saying 'paradigm shift' is such a clich√© :p )
  • If you close the last tab (the app panel is not really a tab, so it doesn't count), the whole browser restarts, reopening the closed tab.
Its UI is also very choppy. I had given 1GB RAM to the virtual machine, with 128MB of video memory. But then, my hard disk is not an SSD, and the OS is not even at beta stage.

What I don't understand is, when you have free OSes like Ubuntu which works on every computer (at least every one of the dozen or so I've tried on), and features like hibernate which can reduce the need for a restart/boot to the rare occasions of a kernel/system update, what exactly is the need for such an OS? They are polished (unlike ChromeOS, in its current state), works with a huge number of devices (unlike ChromeOS), can be installed on any computer used today (unlike ChromeOS), and can choose from tens of thousands of applications to be installed on them, taking advantage of the local processing power.

If you can suggest a valid reason why I should use this OS, please, enlighten me in the comments.

05 November, 2009

New Orkut design copies many of Facebook's features

New Orkut

Orkut has rolled out a new design to some users, and has given the ability to invite others to it, à la Gmail / Google-Wave. There is an entry in the Orkut Support Section which claims that the new interface is faster & simpler, and will make it easier to follow your friends' updates. From the listing of features, it appears that Orkut has copied many of Facebook's features to make the UI more streamlined. And I'm glad they did!

The upgrade adds the ability to comment on friends' updates, and to change the colour scheme of your profile page. But here is the most exciting feature that they are adding to Orkut : with the new version, you will be able to do Audio/Video Chat with your friends! This will probably require the installation of a plugin like the one used in Gmail. There is also the option to do a conference chat.

(Update: The plugin is needed, but if you have it installed and working in Gmail, you don't need to do that again. It just works. No option to set status though. Only the pre-set statuses 'Available', 'Busy' & 'Invisible' and the option to sign out of chat are available.)

Orkuteers will be able to select multiple photos for uploading at once, and also rotate them if needed. All your contacts' activity notifications will be available through a unified what's new section, which will also have the ability to play the videos added by your contacts - exactly how Facebook's 'News Feed' works.

The new version also adds a link header on top like the ones on top of Gmail & Google Docs, allowing users to navigate to other Google properties.

It also looks like they are integrating the scrapbook into the home page, thus making it more like Facebook's wall posts, but I'm not sure about this. The help page says that "The 'scrap' feature lets you post directly to their profile pages". What exactly that means is yours to figure out; your guess would be as good as mine. (See Update below)

As a web developer, I'm happy to hear that in the new version, Orkut has also joined the growing list of large sites which have stopped supporting the IE6 (Internet Explorer 6) browser. They suggest that users should "upgrade to a supported browser" by "download[ing] the latest versions of Google Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer 8".

Update: I'm in! Using the new design now. They have 'Ajax'-ified the interface, so all sections (scraps, photo albums, fav. videos, testimonials etc.) appear in the home page itself. The friends list and communities list are now scrollable, and shows all your friends/communities. You can also narrow-down the list with search-as-you-type. Aesthetics could have been better though.. I miss the old Orkut already.

Update 2: Apparently, this isn't news. The orkut blog had announced it last week. Can't believe I missed that... :p