Apple, you are done…Microsoft, your dominance is near the end and Google, welcome aboard: how Android won the game, via Chrombooks

Change. It is a difficult thing to go through, but, it is inevitable. Nearly thirty years ago, CP/M was THE operating system and 8080/Z80 based computers were THE thing. I remember thinking they’d be around FOREVER. They didn’t make it past 1986, when IBM began to take over the personal computer industry. And, so, we are near that crossroad today.

Google has announced that Android apps will be available ‘soon’ for ChromeOS. That is, as they say, a game changer.

Why?

Well Chromebooks are inexpensive. Small computers using ChromeOS are inexpensive and do not need Wintel level power to do things.  Android apps, likewise, are mostly designed to run on cheap smartphones with power that comes close to that of a cheap desktop or laptop computer.  Combine the two and…WOW…that is a game changer, folks.

A friend of mine (one day, Sam, we will meet in person) has been touting these Chromebook things for a few years now.  I’ve always kind of poo-poo’ed them as being a browser on a minimalist Linux.  However, you put Android abilities in there and…BOOM!   A real challenge to Wintel.

Chromebooks already outsell the Macintosh. It will be a while before they supplant Windows, but, I think the writing is on the wall.  I am a die hard Windows fan. I’ve loved the environment and, later, the operating system since the 2.1 days. But, change is inevitable and Microsoft knows this. Pretty much the only product they still sell that is not completely available on other platforms is the Visual Studio development tool suite. And, I think, it won’t be long and you will be using that on Android. On a Chromebook. 

So, how is Google doing this? Merging the two operating systems?

No. No merging.  No AppV or Virtual machines either. NO, they are using containers that have the Android framework embedded in them.  This is a quite clever approach as it not only allows the app to ‘see’ the underlying filesystem and hardware it is running on, it also means apps can talk to each other and that is HUGE.  What good is a photo editor that cannot get to the photos?

It also means the applications run AT FULL SPEED.  Think about that.  Now the Android GAME world is open to ChromeOS.  In fact ALL Android apps will work this way, no developer changes required. Candy Crush Jelly Donuts and Coffee will run, full speed, full screen, on a cheap $120 (US) Chromebook just as well as it does on that Moto G.  This, my friends, is not only cool, but awesome.

I am no fan of Google, but this is a clever and very smart way to bring Android into the home in something other than a phone.

Now, I need to buy myself a Chromebook, get a good book on Java development and retool myself.  Apple, you need to get a clue. Your walled garden is about to be overtaken by weeds when your gardeners leave for greener pastures.  From Google.

You can read more about it here.

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Siri alternatives: Google Now, Evi and Vlingo. Which is best?

Since I got my company issued iPhone 5, I’ve had the opportunity to play around with Siri, the voice search application that began with the iPhone 4s.  I’ve had mixed results with it and, generally, do not use it. However, that does not mean I don’t like the idea. Far from it, I do.  It’s just that the Siri implementation is, well, sorely lacking. And, for some reason, I can find out the meaning of life yet cannot get results for NASCAR.

Bias aside, I can blame some of the poor results on Apple’s algorithm. Some of the witty results are from Wolfram Alpha while some, I am sure, are from Apple itself. (Ask it who let the dogs out…go on, I dare you.)

Since my personal phone is an iPhone 4, I do not have Siri. Neither does my first gen iPad.  However, all is not lost. See, there are a few apps that do some or all of what Siri does and more.

I have tried out three alternatives and my results are below.  Each one of the apps are free but there are paid ones as well. I have not tried them.

GoogleNowGoogle Now

Google Now is the most complete of the three apps I tried. It has the power of Google search behind it and, in my opinion, is more responsive than even Siri. Google Now also works on PC’s and Macintosh. Google Now also gives you access to Google goggles and a host of Google apps. But, how useful is it?  In a word: VERY.

I am not a huge fan of Google, in fact, I use Bing as my primary search engine but Microsoft does not have something like Google Now (it did, way back in the Windows Mobile 5 days with Live Search. That was pretty good, for 2006.) That said, I think Google not only did a good job with Now, I find it better than Siri in so many ways. It returns better search results, does not give as many smart assed answers (though some of them that Siri gives are funny) and it knows about NASCAR.

eviEvi

Admittedly, I did not try this one as extensively as the others. In a word, it’s confusing. However, it did come closest to Siri, even using Siri’s voice(!). However, it failed to discern Erie, Pennsylvania from Gary or Yearly when I asked for the distance between that location and Mechanicsville, Virginia. Some results it spoke, most it just returned a web page. This was my least favorite of the three. It had far too many options as well and was the worst of the three in picking up my voice.  To be fair, however, I tried it on the iPhone 5 and Siri seems to misunderstand quite a lot as well, so maybe it is either the microphone on the 5 or neither like my voice. Evi also seems to be iPhone ready as it fills the screen completely.

VlingoVlingo

Vlingo is interesting in that it has hooks into email, sms, maps and your social nets as well as search. It really does create an email with the to, subject and body all filled in. It really does create an SMS message and will post to Twitter or Facebook. The problem, though, is that you have to use specific words (which makes sense) and it must understand what you want. Here’s where it seemed to have problems. For me, it mostly understood me, it just did not do what I wanted. And, when it did, you still have finish the task by tapping an onscreen button.  Why can’t you just say ‘Vlingo, send’ or ‘Vlingo, done’? I like what they are trying to do, they just need to go a wee bit further. Oh, one additional gripe: you must tap the screen when you are done speaking. It was the only app to require this. I suppose it is so the apps knows when you are dictating, but it makes little sense.

Of the three (and Siri,) I prefer Google Now. Vlingo, when the bugs are worked out, will be a strong contender, but, for now, Google wins.

All three apps are in the App Store, work on iPhone 4 and up and are free.

EDIT: I neglected to mention that Google Now and Evi are also available on Android and gives Android users a Siri like experience. Evi is currently in Beta. Vlingo is also availble on Blackberry and Windows Mobile (no mention of Windows Phone, though.)

iPhone: My mini-micro review

iphone4Our move to Apple’s iPhone is complete. My phone arrived and activating it was not horrible, but I still had to call Sprint as the online activation refused to complete the process for me.

So, how’s the phone?

Well, simply, it is a very impressive piece of gear.  It feels solid, not too light, not too heavy. The ‘retina’ display is superb and performance is snappy. Plus, it just looks nice.  While I don’t think it is the most beautiful phone out there, it sure is nice looking.

iOS 6 Upgrade

My phone came with iOS 6 already installed (the other two we got had to be upgraded) which was a pleasant surprise and cut about an hour off of setting it up.  iOS 6 feels very responsive, more than my HTC Android phone and the iPad as well. 

Setup

Setup was pretty easy.  Once activated, I connected the phone to iTunes and I was able to install the iPhone compatible apps that I had on the iPad. I was surprised at how many there were.  The ones I really wanted were OneNote, EverNote, Netflix and Angry Birds. The other thing I was concerned about were my contacts. However, thanks to Google, that was a non-issue. I setup my GMail account in mail and the Comcast mail account as well. My contacts synced with no problem, though I see there is some cleanup as there are a ton of dupes.

Use

Using the phone was fairly intuitive and pretty easy to use.  Making a call was much more pleasant than on my Android and the sound quality is excellent.  I find the spearker phone option especially nice as you can hear easily and the receiver can understand you. A nice change from our previous phones. Since I already have an iPad, I pretty knew what to do, but if I were totally new to iOS, I think I might have a problem with some of aspects, like the god-awful Settings app. While I understand the desire to put all options in one place, I find it difficult to navigate that app. The networking options are the worst, buried way too deep. But, these do not detract from the overall experience and, once set, there should be little reason to change them. Perhaps my favorite new feature, and one that is easy to use is Facetime. While Facetime on the iPhone 4 does not work over the cell network, it will work when connected to WiFi. (Which brings up a complaint: no where on the screen does it say this feature does not work on the iPhone 4 over cellular. Apple should notate this.)

iTunes

Why hasn’t Apple dumped this turkey yet? iTunes is bloated, broken, slow and crashes. A lot. Yet, we are still forced to tether our devices to this behemoth to accomplish certain things. On my Windows 7 computer, it also looks terribly out of date and I can only imagine that getting worse on Windows 8.

Summary

Overall, I am impressed with the phone and the build quality is just superb. I’m sure, as time goes on, I will find things I don’t like but, for now, I find myself really liking this phone. And, that, my friends, is something I had not expected. Afterall, I’m a Windows/Microsoft guy. I guess it might be time to finally retire my Zune.

Are Chromebooks worth the money?

So the Chromebooks (UGH, that is the lamest name in tech) have finally hit the market.  On paper, these notebooks seem very appealing: a lightweight OS, quick startup and you never have to worry about installing applications.  Great, right?  Nope.  Why?  The price.  These things cost more than a real laptop with a real operating system and real storage.  For the money, these things are a major dud.  They lack local storage and, to be, you know, useful, you must always be connected to the net. 

Samsung and Acer have both introduced these crippled laptops with the cheapest starting at $349 for the WiFi only version. 3G service is provided by Verizon with 100mb of data per month, for two years, being free. Additional data plans are available. 

At $499 for the high end Chromebook from Samsung, the value is simply not there.

A recent tear down of one of them reveals netbook like innards.  And that is the big problem: these things are nothing more than netbooks in full size laptop cases and they do not run a useful OS.  You get a Linux kernal with a browser bolted on to it.  No local storage and when not connected, not much functionality.

Google, purveyors of all things Chrome, says that offline functionality is coming soon in the form of Google Apps and there are a few ‘downloadable’ apps for Chromium, but it will not be like the traditional operating system’s applications.

I don’t know, maybe I am being closed minded or short sighted, but, for the money, I just don’t see the value here.  If Google really wants these things to take, they should give them away or charge less than a hundred bucks for them and make it up with ads, since that is the ultimate goal here…to sell ads.  Google’s business is NOT browsers, operating systems or even search. It is advertising.  That’s it. Search and etc are the vehicles they use to deliver the ads.  They are not the altruistic company many think they are, no, they are an advertising agency and nothing more.  They are the NASCAR of the computer world: entertaining, feisty, flashy, loud and one gigantic billboard.

You can check out the hardware (as well as order one) here.

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Google’s other operating system was showed off this week

This week, Google showed off both its Chrome ‘App’ Store and the Chrome OS, it’s flavor of Linux with the Chrome browser bolted onto it.  Along with the OS, they demoed it on a ‘spec’ laptop that ONLY runs Chrome OS.

I’m not going to talk about the store, you can read it about that here.  No, I am going to talk a bit about the Chrome OS itself.

Chrome OS is a fully baked cloud experience.  The “OS”, which is just a stripped down Linux with the browser as the interface, stays out of the way.  The user only sees the browser. The desktop is your homepage with all of your book marks in one easy to get to location.  The whole notion of a file system, like you have in Windows or on the Macintosh, is history.  Your stuff is saved in the cloud with the application you were using, so if you used Google Docs, then your documents are stored somewhere on a Google server.  Same for your photos, be it on Facebook or Picasa Web.  While this makes it simple and backups should be a no brainer, the downside is that you MUST be connected at all times to get your data.  And forget working offline, just does not work here.

The laptop is barebones but does include a 3G cell radio with Verizon service.  You will get 100mb a month for free and then the price sky rockets after that.  You can use that in one ten minute browsing session.  Sixty thousand lucky people will get to experience the laptop, Chrome OS and Verizon since that is the number of laptops that were produced. These will not be sold and are not intended, yet, for the general population.

The notion of a cloud based operating system is intriguing, downside notwithstanding.  Management should be simple and setup was a snap with Google demonstrating initial setup in just a few minutes. 

The real downside, and one that will be difficult for Google, at least with the older crowd, is lack of local storage and off line use.  The always connected idea is great in theory, but lose that connection, even for a few minutes, and you will see just how much of a headache it could be.

I am still undecided about Chrome. I need more seat time with the OS.  Perhaps I’ll be one of the sixty thousand but I doubt it.   I would really like to put my concerns to bed or prove them out. Either way, I think it would exciting to find out.

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