Brushed chrome – the story of Google’s browser in comic book form

What a stroke of genius to commission Scott McCloud to tell the story of Google’s new web browser, Chrome, in comic form.

McCloud’s own books have communicated his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of comics themselves. Now his fluid, conversational style perfectly captures the diverse passions of project team members – passions that gel together to create a finished (well OK, it’s Google, so it must be beta) product.

The Chrome comic is packed with exhibits in support of Google’s claim to have started from scratch with the browser, to “design something based on the needs of today’s web applications and today’s users”. Among them, four in particular struck a chord with me:

The PC and the browser are always on, which has implications for memory usage and management. The fragmentation problem created by current browsers “grows all day, as the lifetime of the browser extends.” “Have you tried turning it off and on again” is no longer an acceptable IT helpdesk solution.

The homepage is dead (long live the new tab!) Web users rely less and less on a single web page as their starting point, instead developing a habit of checking a handful of different sites whenever they go to the browser. Google’s nine-thumbnail “new tab” page is a neat response to the way we now use the web.

Some things are best forgotten. With all this personalisation, Google of all service providers must be ultra-aware of users’ privacy concerns. McCloud diplomatically chooses “Want to keep a surprise gift a secret” as the, ehem, discrete scenario to illustrate their solution to this user requirement.

Mobile is already starting to make the deskbound web a better place. Software engineer Darin Fisher is quoted: “We also knew there was a team at Google working on Android and we asked them, ‘Why did you guys use Webkit?'” So when it came to something as fundamental as the choice of a rendering engine, in a company self-proclaimed to “live on the Internet”, it turned out to be the mobile team that had the inside track. I’ve long believed that the PC-based web experience has lots to gain from applying some of the discipline of mobile.

… and finally a nostalgic aside: seeing Scott McCloud’s technical explanation of the principles behind Chrome reminded me of Donald Alcock’s delightfully hand-drawn and lettered “Illustrating Basic” which helped me get to grips with my BBC Micro as a boy. I’m determined my own Cbeebies-generation children should also have some exposure to programming languages, and make periodic attempts to divert them from iPlayer and AdventureQuest to Scratch!

RIP my Tablet PC

It’s been a while since my trusty work-issue Compaq Tablet PC gave up the ghost, and I’m finally getting around to writing about it. We’d been together more than three years, the TC1000 and I, and the day the man from IT pronounced it dead (a motherboard issue, apparently) it felt like a bereavement. A pet bereavement, admittedly. Well more a small pet, say a goldfish or a gerbil, rather than a cat or dog kind of pet. But a loss all the same.

The Compaq Tablet PC was possibly the world’s slowest laptop. Even after the Service Pack 2 update fixed some of the obvious user interface problems with XP Tablet Edition, windows still opened and closed and switched from landscape to portrait and back again in slow-motion, like the flight of the bumblebee reduced to one frame per second to expose every tiny flap of its wings.

But it had an organic quality that made these things so easy to forgive. Let me count the ways.

  1. The smooth rounded edges made it a joy to handle
  2. The whole unit was warm to the touch, about a warm as my newborn baby sons, but without the nappies
  3. It breathed. The internal fan pushed out warm air – essential for long meetings in my director ‘s office, where the ice-cold aircon posed a risk of frostbite
  4. It was polite. In meetings, it lay flat on the table, not raised between me and the rest of the room like the Berlin Wall of regular laptops.
  5. It could read my writing, a feat beyond most humans. Reeves and Nass should study this feature as a driver of their “media equation”
  6. The gratuitous swivel action to reveal the keyboard – more reminiscent of quirky French design – an old Citroen car, Terminal 1 at Charles De Gaulle Airport, a font by Porchez

Fortunately, my Tablet PC’s twin is still going strong – I bought another for my personal use and am typing this post on it right now. But for work use, it seems the Tablet PC just hasn’t got the traction to be worth the trouble for cookie cutter corporate IT. That’s a shame, because I really believe Tablets can improve productivity and make the workplace move human. No one ever got fired for buying a Dell, but no matter how much more practical I can’t imagine holding a wake for a D420.

The five senses of web browsing

Chris Heathcote’s post on Antimarthastewartisation got me all misty eyed at the thought of printers’ ink and white spirit, then I came across Matt Webb’s fascinating Making Senses presentation.

And that got me thinking that, actually, there is quite a lot of real sense experience bound up with surfing the web, only somehow we blot it out and focus on the bits and bytes to the exclusion of everything else.

Here’s my top five sense experiences of the web:

Sight: the sunlight reflected in the screen. Makes me squint, but reminds me there’s a real world outside my Windows®.

Sound: the quiet whirr of the fan – a subtle indication that the hard disk’s been busy.

Touch: the warmth of my Compaq Tablet PC – it must be the world’s slowest laptop but on a cold winter’s day it makes a great hot water bottle.

Taste: Sandwiches – absent-mindedly dropping crumbs into the keyboard while surfing on a lunchbreak.

Smell: the scent of electrical burning that tells me the laptop’s been on too long. Time to switch off.