beta

Belated and potentially unreliable discussion of Google Chrome

I feel it's important to tell it like it is, even in the restricted space of a post title; but maybe I need a lesson from Google in self-presentation.

I'm typing this from Google Chrome. Since it was released almost two weeks ago I've wanted to blog about it, but have been mostly hampered by no easy access to Vista or XP. I've temporarily rediscovered my XP partition, though, and as mountains of Windows security updates download in the background I now feel frankly safer in Chrome than in IE7 (or the cranky old FF2.x I'm about to update while I'm here).

Why this might be a plug, although it probably isn't

I've also been waiting to categorically declare a very minor conflict of interest, which I can now do: yesterday a lovely paper copy of the Google Chrome comic arrived in my letterbox. So if you think I'm blogging because of that, you can navigate elsewhere now.

Certainly a product's incompatibility with X/Linux would normally make me avoid it, so perhaps I have being persuaded by the marketing. But a large part of Chrome is marketing, and what makes it most interesting is what it reveals about Google's marketing internals and about whether or not they matter; but more about that later.

How Google Chrome feels and acts

The ever-lucid Jon Hicks has already posted some thoughts, so my delay in writing has saved me time on that score. I don't have a great eye for design, but I feel like Chrome's appearance is interesting if less revolutionary than the promotional material might suggest. Tabs sit in a blue surrounding background, making them look like a half-hearted IE7 reskin. Menus have, as in IE7, been relegated to two weird buttons on the right of the address bar. Full-screen mode is nice, though, as the tabs sit over the top window bar, combining Windows chrome and Chrome chrome---does that make sense?---to increase the window size.

Browsers are browsers and, as with word processors and spreadsheet software, they should really be free and open-source by now, leaving proper software companies with time to develop the next generation of applications. So in a sense most of what Google Chrome does, it does well: unobtrusively and unremarkably, and that's how it should be; but quite hard to comment on. What's most noticeable is the speed: it's faster than any browser I've used on XP, ever. Opening new tabs and windows---although in Chrome there's very little difference under the hood, as they're all processes---is nippy, despite the extra overhead that Google have decided is essential to Chrome's distributed stability. Pulling a tab out of one window; letting it drop as a new window, or dropping it into a different window; maximizing windows and general rendering of content: these are all sharp and impressive. But again, they shouldn't be as obvious as they are, and it merely reflects on other browsers that Chrome feels so fast.

There's a kind of Firebug-like inspector in Chrome, and it's nice enough, although it ought to be extracted as a plugin before long, otherwise my guess is it will end up neglected. And popup blocking---represented in the promotional bumf as the window swallowing the popup, and you the user pulling it out in a reactive way---is just a case of a popup window appearing in the main tab so that only its bar is visible. There's no obvious feeling of resistance as you pull the hidden window up to be visible. Maybe that's the point, but after the reaction of tab dragging and dropping you feel like you're moving popups around using an entirely different UI. Also, as I've just discovered, text search doesn't look in form textareas, which makes proofreading your blogposts difficult.

Generally, though, Chrome has at least run rings around anything that Microsoft can produce in the browser market, and then Google managed to completely open-source the code which, like some old John McCain company, Microsoft can neither do nor understand why it should. It's astonishing to see one huge company outmanoeuvre another like this, and suggests interesting times still ahead

What packaging Chrome has been wrapped in

As regards the marketing, Google has also managed to completely confound the other big player Microsoft is intent on gradually rebranding itself as something in between the silver-and-blueblack chunky mens' toiletries packaging that make it acceptable to possess both moisturisers and Y chromosomes, and transparent, flashy interfaces of the sort that IE6 always fucks up and means web developers have to work around. Google, on the other hand, has essentially presented itself through Chrome as a kind of retro-yet-futuristic 1950s take on a science-fiction OSX, all meals-in-a-tablet and egg-shaped seats.

Much of this has been down to the artistic skills of Scott McCloud. I never know what to think about him. On the one hand he's got this unique, flowing, clean style that's something like a scrubbed Daniel Clowes; on the other, his drawings can sometimes feel washed out, pretentious and affected. On the one hand, he's tried to revolutionize the way that people think about comics, often by exposing what good comics have been doing for years; on the other, very few people have got rich on the micropayment model he espouses, and if it isn't working for musicians it's unlikely to work for graphic novelists.

Where that backlash came from

By portraying itself as different from other industry behemoths---which, to be fair, it is in some ways---Google has left itself in a bind. It still has shareholders, and on one level legally has to conduct itself as a responsible company, however much it wants to be treated like, or possibly with, Ubuntu. Fronting what's essentially a business exercise with a divisive figure like McCloud leaves you ripe to parody, and The Register has tried to step in with Google Chrome comic funnies. They fly in the face of the no-alteration Creative Commons licence that Google/McCloud released the work under, but that's fine because the uniquely American concept of fair use lets them do that if it's satire.

Except they don't work as satire, because they're not funny. And yet at the same time the font they've used makes it look eerily reminiscent of the shockingly explicit Jerk City, which hints at a far better way of parodying the style: the 4chan/yayhooray parodies are in a way more honest and hence funnier: probably because they're more anarchic and less interested in squeezing out another humourless Googlebashing.

No product launch is smooth, and there've been bumps in the otherwise smooth journey that Chrome has made to mass testing (if not mass acceptance). The end-user licence turned out to contain mad MyPlace-like terms of use which was sort of an accident, although it's drawn attention to the fact that they still exist in other Google products. Whoops. The original beta---or, given that everything from Google is a beta, maybe we should just call it an alpha and be done---was susceptible to Safari-like carpetbombing, and The Register criticized the rather flaky bugfix and its rollout procedure.

I love el Reg and its journalistic instincts. It's more than happy to puncture someone's silly bubble, and it displays a dogged tenacity in pursuing the "real" story: although they're basically wrong about climate change, in the way that Private Eye turned out to be wrong about MMR; and their grammar and sub-editing is atrocious for an outlet that considers itself to be conducting serious journalism.

But I think they're being unfair on Google: what other open-source product would launch to such scrutiny? What other product has had seamless security procedure baked into it from its alpha, and why should that matter? Google are big, but they can only cover so many bases: there's so much infrastructure glossed over by McCloud's comic, and maybe a FOSS-like boring list of features and a changeset would have led people to underestimate less the sheer amount of stress testing, and the sheer amount of work that can only now be stress-tested, now there's a user base and the animosity of the press to contend with.

Google did after all still manage a big reveal---only two weeks before London's own Google Developer Day---in their usual manner. But I do wonder about the timing. Was there a danger in letting crowds into Google UK while Chrome was still secret? Did someone want Chrome to be out---prematurely, if need be---for the coup of having people drool over it at a GDD? Was the news about to leak anyway, and did damage limitation dictate the software's release? If that's the case, though... does it matter? Google gets its theatre; the world gets an interesting FOSS project; early adopters get an unstable pre-release: everyone's happy. Ish.

Which hand is on Google's tiller

Pessimistic journalists---and in my honest-to-goodness opinion there's no better sort---always point to Google's lack of revenue from its non-core offerings and suggest that it'd be far better for Google to concentrate on the products that directly earn it money. But they forget that Google's profitless products exist as a perpetual rebranding and repositioning of Google: indirectly, they maintain Google's status as a company that other companies, developers and end users actively want to be associated with, and actively trust. While they'll never entirely remove the patina and dust collecting on their "don't be evil" statement, they can at least act like a company that trusts open source, and whom open-source communities trust in turn.

Google can keep on pushing things like Chrome out, and its launch cycle can be dictated by something other than the developers' whims, because: its main rival has nothing like Chrome, or GMail, or Google Docs; and successful FOSS projects like Django or Ubuntu have hardly suffered from bleeding-edge alphas or crotchety betas, as long as community, or honesty, or image, has been there to prop them up.

Who the hell am I to be telling you this anyway

I quite like Chrome. But I completely accept that receiving personalized communication from the company taints my status as a reliable blogger. So don't take my opinion on Chrome at face value.

I certainly won't: I'm about to reboot into a proper operating system, and I'll lose Chrome as I do so. It's a nice addition to the existing ranks of browsers, but not that nice.

Playing with Django: a fretless experience

I've been trying for twenty minutes to shoehorn a joke about Grappelling into this excerpt.

Django continues to gather momentum towards its imminent 1.0 release. The 1.0 beta 1 is out; the developer documentation has been refactored; it already places nicely with Python's powerful debugging and logging tools; indeed, all is proceeding according to the roadmap, more or less. James Turnbull will be speaking about Django 1.0 at the eighth Oxford Geek Night this Wednesday, and it looks like he's got plenty of triumphs to bulletpoint for us.

An Oxford Django sprint had been mooted for this weekend. I didn't hear much more about it, but to be honest I had the great opportunity to actually have my own sprint---against 1.0b1---in work this week, working on a fast-turnaround project. I definitely felt performance improvements, especially when running unit tests. It was also lovely to work on my first internationalized/localized site and to find that it was just a question of dropping in certain bits of middleware to make it work across six languages. We didn't have any translations in place, but I clicked on "Polszczyzna" expecting bugger-all to happen and then suddenly realised that the English-language link read "Anglieski." It's characteristic of Python's (and Django's) refreshingly plastic and just-works behaviour. Magic.

We did encounter one bug, involving model inheritance. I struggled for a while with registering with the project trac to report it. It's my first mediocre experience with Django: I waited a day or so for the arrival of an account-confirmation email, but eventually gave up without adding what would have admittedly been a me-too to an existing bug report. But then, email finally in my inbox, I chased it up just now, to find that it's been fixed. Today.

Probably much like Django itself, the project's interface with the user/consumer requires some past experience with its foibles, but the actual endeavour itself is fast, well-factored and puts most closed-source equivalents to shame.

The Carbon Account is live

Once you start recording your wanton indulgences, you become less indulgent.

Torchbox (where I work) soft-launched The Carbon Account today. More press information should be available on the site in the next couple of days: just ring up or email if you need some in the mean time.

Beta testers have been hammering away at the Carbon Account for ages to make sure everything’s working right. The Facebook application has been live a week or so to people involved in beta-testing, and the nascent Wychwood CRAG has been using the Carbon Account as its platform of choice, monitoring and comparing each member’s carbon footprint for a couple of months now. That’s been especially useful, as the CRAG has argued about the functionality and design decisions a good deal from a whole range of viewpoints: from environmental newbies to astonishingly well-informed amateur-experts.

A lot of preparation has gone into today’s launch, but although I’ve been using it for nearly a year, I’ve not been directly involved in the development of the Carbon Account so can’t take any share of the credit. Everyone who has worked on it deserves a big pat on the back today, though. The rest of you, sign up!

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