Attention to details

Yesterday I decided to subscribe to a friend’s RSS feed. She is currently in Japan and writing about her experiences there (yes, she’s been talking about the earthquake among other things). I’ve been carrying around my Chrome netbook since it’s more comfortable to use than my Eee PC netbook and I was using when I decided to subscribe to her feed. Chrome OS is supposed to be optimized for living on the web and RSS is definitely a part of the web. In fact, Google Reader is the probably the best web-based feed reader out there (and one of the better RSS readers period). However, despite Google’s expertise with the web and their investment in ChromeOS doing something as simple as subscribing to an RSS feed takes three separate steps.

When you get to a webpage that has associated RSS feeds, Chrome will auto-detect them and put a small RSS icon in the address bar. When you click that icon you get  a list of available feeds. That’s fine because it exposes important information in an unobtrusive form and makes more detailed information easily available. Once you click whichever link you do want to subscribe to, you get taken to another page which shows a preview of the feed articles and lets you choose which feed reader you want to subscribe to. To be fair, this step can be removed by picking a default feed reader. In my case I choose Google Reader. But instead of just adding your feed to Google Reader, you are dropped into Reader where you have to click the subscribe button to actually subscribe to the feed. Though I’ve seen far worse signup processes, this could all be boiled down to a single step process if Google Reader and Google Chrome OS worked just a little bit better together (yes, I said Google twice to make a point).

I’ve done this lots of times already, but today it really bothered me. A few hours before I subscribed to my friend’s feed, I read Andy Ihnatko’s review of the iPad 2. If you’re considering buying the iPad 2 (or just interested in it) take half an hour and go read it. I want to highlight the part of the article that really stuck with me (and fueled my annoyance at the Chrome/Reader signup process).

The iPad 2 Smart Cover is emblematic of what makes Apple a great technology company. I kind of want to hide one in my jacket pocket every time a tech company is giving me my first briefing on a new tablet, and bring it out at a decisive moment.

“Halt,” I would say, unrolling the Smart Cover and holding it before me like a talisman to ward off evil. “Did you put as much thought into your entire tablet as Apple put into this deceptively simple screen cover?”

See, I’m increasingly coming to the view that the small things matter. Not only do they matter, they are downright important and worthy of serious attention especially if they are part of products you want to get into the hands of lots of people. Unfortunately this does not seem to be clear to people and companies that are making said products, even companies that should know better.

As much as we’d like to pretend that humans are logical beings and use products and services based purely on their technical merits, the truth is we’re not Vulcans. Using beautiful, well-designed products and living in attractive environments actually makes us feel better and more productive. And when it comes to making a solid, fine-tuned experience, the small stuff matters. It really matters.

Not to sound like a total fanboy, but Apple realizes this and executes it well, and is one of the few companies that do. Interestingly enough, Apple’s penchant for polish and good design spills over into the whole ecosystem of Mac apps. OS X is the only platform where I honestly say that some applications are beautiful. The web is a becoming close second thanks to the increase in quality of rendering engines. I think this is an analog of the “broken windows theory” — Apple actively discourages broken windows on its platform. It’s own products are useful, well-designed and a joy to use. They’re continually raising the bar, in terms of hardware, software and the combined experience.

Demanding perfection and not shipping bad products is not a easy choice to make, but is certainly pays. Again, Apple last made $14 billion in profits. In profits. And is now the second largest company in the world. Companies like Moleskin, Behance and Rhodia make beautiful, thoughtfully designed stationary products and they’re not cheap. But they’re worth it. If you’re serious about creating products and services that people not only use, but want to use, then you should sweat the small stuff and work on creating the filter.

Why I’m not giving up on Firefox yet

Google is upping the ante on pretty much every major producer of operating systems and web technologies. The release of Google Chrome might not have been as ground-shattering as a lot of people of made it out to be, but it was certainly a clear message that Google was taking the control of the web seriously. The announcement of Chrome OS has ruffled even more feathers and set the rumor mills to work overtime and if you like around the web you’ll see all sorts of opinions regarding the whole situation. I’ve previously said that I wasn’t ready to take a side until I saw an actual release of Chrome OS and decided firsthand if it met my needs. I’m going to stand by my word and for the time being at least my browser of choice is still Firefox on all platforms. Here’s why:

1. Extensions

Chrome is growing support for extensions and I hear they’re going to be really easy to make. But it’s going to be a while before they catch the community support that already exists around Firefox. I use a number of extensions on a regular basis including Zotero, the Diigo toolbar, Twitterfox and Down Them All. Some of these extensions allow me to use stand-alone web applications, but without actually visiting the website (Twitterfox and the Diigo bar). Others let me easily perform common web-related tasks without requiring a separate program (FireFTP and FireBug). Some of these could easily be their own programs, but even compared to full desktop equivalents, they are outstanding tools (Zotero). Equally important are more experimental extensions like Mozilla’s Weave and Ubiquity tools. These are still experimental tools but already provide useful functionality that I think I’m going to use more and more as they mature. Until Chrome can sport equally compelling and useful tools, I’ll stay put.

2. I don’t use Windows all that much

My use of Windows varies from about once a month to once a week. My computer time is divided almost equally between OS X and Linux. Though the open source component of Chrome compiles and runs of both of them, they are still far from complete. I don’t mind trying out something experimental to get the feel for it (or if I have an active interest in it), but considering that Firefox already offers a high quality browsing experience already, I don’t see a need to switch.

3. I don’t quite agree with the ‘every tab is a process’ model

A large part of Chrome’s innovation is in treating the browser more like an operating system and each tab as an separate web application. While this is probably a good idea in terms of safety and reliability, it also turns the browser into a very memory heavy application. Combine that with Vista’s own inefficiencies and the fact I often run other heavy programs (compilers, IDEs and the like), I really want my browser to not take up more memory than it has to. As the article I linked to shows, Firefox does much better in memory terms than other popular browsers. The number of web applications that I leave open for any period of time are trusted applications and most of them do not stay open for more than an hour or so at a time so I’m not sure I need a full multiprocess browser for now.

4. Firefox is catching up

When Chrome first came out, it did come up with a number of cool new features. Besides the memory model, it sported an incredibly fast JavaScript Engine and (in my opinion) a really clean interface. Firefox was left in the dust to some extent, but it’s quickly catching up. The new 3.5 release has seen improvements in JavaScript performance and support for the HTML 5 video tag. JavaScript isn’t quite as fast as on Chrome (for example, Chrome experiments doesn’t quite work right), but it’s fast enough for the differences to be unnoticeable for most people (including myself). Thanks to theming, users can make the Firefox interface as clean as they want it to be. There’s even a good theme that closely mimics Chrome.

5. Chrome still has bugs that need fixing

While Chrome sports some great new technologies, there are still some problems that really need to be fixed. In particular, there are issues with image sizing (that I saw while viewing this blog with Chrome). As well as issues with the implementation of the HTML 5 canvas tag. The later is especially important to get right as it’s going to be really important for the future of web apps. One example that I think will become really important is the Bespin code editor which doesn’t work right under Chrome (and not all under Chromium). Until these bugs get fixed, I’m not going to be able consider moving to Chrome for full time use.

Though I’m not ready to leave Firefox yet, I’m certainly not making any promises for the future. I’m sure that Chrome will continue to push innovation in the browser sphere and all net users will benefit as a result. At the same time Firefox is also taking the initiative in a number of areas (especially in respect to HTML 5) and it will be interesting how they keep up the pace. I personally would like to see some amount of cross-fertilization between the open source browser communities. In particular it might be worthwhile for Firefox to consider adopting the V8 JavaScript engine. In return, Chrome could learn a few lessons from Firefox with regard to HTML 5. The following months and years are certainly going to be an interesting period for web technology and I’m sure to make some careful consideration before making any sort of browser move.

The Chrome Wars have begun

I come to work this morning and the intertubes are shaking with Google’s latest announcement: the coming of it’s Linux-based, web-oriented operating system for netbooks: Google Chrome OS. You’ve probably already read a lot of the other posts about the Chrome OS and know something about how it works. It’s an operating system at the core, but more importantly its a platform tuned to running web apps. It’s a clear signal from Google to pretty much every other operating system maker out there, including Microsoft and Apple, but also the Linux distribution providers like Red Hat and Canonical. The message is simple and clear; move over OS makers, the browser is the new application platform.

Google Chrome as the operating system for web apps

Google Chrome as the operating system for web apps

Though the reactions from around the web are mostly positive, there are some articles that are raising real issues. ZDNet Australia criticizes Chrome OS on the grounds that it will further fragment the Linux community (who will be contributing the kernel of the new OS) and a better solution would have been to join with Ubuntu which already has pushed Linux to new heights. A prediction from The Next Web makes the claim that Chrome OS will be “the beginning of the end for Ubuntu & co” and the real battle will be between Apple and Google, leaving everyone else in the dust. There’s also concern about the fact that Google already has a operating system for the web: Android, even though it’s only for mobile devices (though it has been ported to x86). Personally, I feel that these criticisms and fears surrounding Chrome contain the more interesting food for thought.

Microsoft isnt beat yet (image from Engadget)

Microsoft isn't beat yet (image from Engadget)

Chrome OS is undoubtedly going to be interesting, both in terms of technology and in terms of the market forces that it will affect. Also certain is that Google is more clearly than ever taking a swipe at Microsoft. Even though Google may have become the most powerful player in  the web sphere, the desktop operating system stronghold was undoubtedly held by Microsoft. Even many of Google’s own applications (including Chrome) target Windows as the primary platform. Microsoft is still a force to be reckoned with. Windows 7 is shaping up well and they have a few tricks up their sleeve, including a new browser project: Gazelle and even a cloud-centered operating system called Midori in the works. They also have a powerful research wing which does some really interesting work and a very big budget (which is enough for them to sit things out for a few years while they make a better product). Whether or not they will actually do so is still questionable, but lets not write them off just yet.

And there is Apple. The last few years have seen Apple’s gradual re-rise to stardom starting with the beautiful new OS X and continuing today with it’s dominance of the online music store arena and the strength of the iPhone platform. Not many people seem interested in pitting Google against Apple, especially since Apple has stayed out of the mainstream operating system and netbook markets. However, when it comes to the internet, Apple has a considerable stake. The iPhone is as much a portable internet device as it is a phone. And though it has carefully stayed away from the low-cost netbook market, it’s unlikely that they’ll sit by while Google plays its hand in the portable computer market.

Apple may the best suited to withstand Google (from The Next Web)

Apple may the best suited to withstand Google (from The Next Web)

However Apple’s strength in the current situation probably stems directly from the closed, proprietary nature of it’s technology. Apple has a reputation for both creating and support great desktop apps. Good design has always been a hallmark of software running on a Mac and most web apps are still far for matching the polish that Apple has  to offer. The user experience offered by the complete OS X operating system by virtue of the way it can tie together information across different apps is still something that web applications (even suites like Google Apps) have not matched to a large extent. I agree with the Next Web post that Apple probably has the most chance of retaining its user base as Google begins it’s foray into the operating system arena. With the iPhone they’ve shown that they’re still capable of market-shaking innovation and that will probably help them survive the coming OS wars.

One more important player in this market is Linux. Thanks in no small measure to Canonical, desktop Linux has gained some ground in the last few years. However, it’s still holding a very small piece of the desktop market. It’s a valid concern that Google’s entry into the market might eat into the Linux market share. Though it’s certainly possible, I’m not quite sure if this will come to pass. A lot will depend on how easy it is to get things working on Chrome OS besides the browser and web apps. What new webapps have to offer will also be influential. I personally have never been very hopeful of Linux’s position on the consumer desktop. It’s great for hacker-types like me, but I’m still not fully convinced if I would recommend it for everybody. In my opinion, most Linux desktop apps still lack some amount of external polish. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend Vista either. I do think that OS X is the best OS for most users. I don’t see Chrome as contributing to the ‘fragmentation’ of the Linux distribution scene because I expect it to be very different from traditional distros, but in this case, only time will tell.

So what can we expect in the months to come before and after Chrome OS hits the markets? Undoubtedly Google’s announcement will cause the other big players in the field to sit up and take notice. I think this move might consider other companies, especially Microsoft to push out web-centric products sooner than they otherwise would have. Google is clearly looking to shake things up in the near future and it would be folly not to plan to do something about it. However, it’s also worth keeping in mind that Chrome OS is still some time away and there is a lot of work to be done — Chromium works on Linux, but only just.

yodaBefore we make and declarations about drastic change in the OS market, it would be prudent to wait and watch and see what Chrome OS actually looks like when it releases. There is also the fact that Google will have to get people to actually use it and that may be easier said than done (considering the fact that most netbooks run Windows XP). Of course, as the iPhone has shown, there is room in the market for a sleek new product if it is made right. I will be interested in seeing how Chrome OS turns out, but I certainly won’t be giving up my Linux laptop or my Mac Mini anytime soon. I wish Chrome OS luck and hope to see some good ideas being implemented. As Yoda would say, ‘Begun the Chrome Wars have’, I’m not ready to pick sides just yet.