Thursday, 27 December 2012

Chrome Challenge Day 7: To Chrome or not to Chrome?

My Chrome Challenge:  For 1 week, I will use nothing but the Chrome browser to do everything I need to do on a laptop

So how was my experience? What are my conclusions?

Given I am typing up my Day 7 notes from a Chromebook right now, one might expect a biased conclusion here.  But rest assured, I am typing up notes from before I received this delightful machine.

On Day 1, when stating my terms and conditions, I mentioned the goals of the challenge.  I currently use the following:

Mac Mini - my home “desktop” machine
MacBook Pro - the laptop I carry around with me
Blackberry Playbook - a tablet I don’t use too much (won after writing a Playbook app)
Google Nexus 4 - my Android smartphone

As you can see, I use a wide variety of  tech products, not necessarily from the same brand.  The Chromebook was designed to be a tablet challenger really.  A fast, reliable and lightweight portal to the cloud with capabilities of working offline.  

What am I expecting? I want to replace my Macbook Pro.  I want to see if it is possible for the Chrome OS to do what a tablet could never do at it’s current level of technology - give me the same desktop experience as a laptop gives me. But I want to do this with a machine that boots up very quickly, lasts a long time without charging and is lightweight.  I guess you could see this as a choice of laptop vs chromebook vs tablet. (Which opens up an argument for another time of Android vs Chrome)

Offline Capabilities
This is one of the first aspects I looked at, mostly because this is most people’s (and my) fear of moving to an operating system which uses only a browser.  After my week-long analysis, I realised that I am online around 90% of the time.  My Nexus phone provides tethering capabilities (which just means I have a wireless hotspot around all the time).  In the underground I tend to do things on my phone like play games, check unread mails, etc. On the plane I just watch movies if I’m not satisfied with the movie selection.

But let’s assume I would use my laptop offline for the sake of argument - I use it for the following:

  • Calendar
  • Email
  • Games
  • Writing documents
  • Writing spreadsheets

There is one more which should be on that list, which is offline software development.  But I want to look at that separately.  Google Drive gives me storage space in the cloud where I can use web apps like Google Docs to edit my documents and spreadsheets offline - synchronising behind the scenes to the cloud when I do eventually get connection.  There is a number of games which can be played offline - I have been playing Angry Birds for the first time on the Chrome browser.  My Email and Calendar can be used offline, which I came across on my Day 1 post. You can see a whole list of offline Chrome web apps here.

Software Development/Programming
This is the part I was most nervous about through the week.  I am in the middle of keeping the Cyman System Android application (Cyman Mark 2) updated and improved all the time.  Once I found web applications to handle my Linux command-line needs with the ability to host web applications or services, I was very comfortable.  PythonAnywhere was my web app of choice.

Unfortunately, I could not do this offline, which would have been great.  But the few moments I am offline, I don’t miss my Mac if I’m honest.  Besides, there are several other web apps I have come across where you can edit HTML, JavaScript, and many other files stored on my Google Drive where I can code offline. These will come in handy when creating Chrome web apps for myself (like the Cyman Mark 3).  Neutron Drive is by far the best I have seen, and it works offline as well helping the programmer out with syntax highlighting and code completion.

I’m not the most proficient of photoshoppers, but I like to occasionally edit my pictures to... y’know... make my photos look like they were taken in the 60’s.  There are many web apps that enable you to do this, but my editor of choice is actually right from within Google+.  As my pictures are automatically uploaded there, it makes it quite a simple choice really - the tools are great.

One thing I do with less frequency is video editing.  Although I have found WeVideo to be pretty useful, powerful, and even more so if you upgrade to a paid-for account.  But I still need some practice to get good with it.  Until then, I still have iMovie on my Mac Mini as well as the ability to connect remotely to my Mac through Chrome with the Chrome Remote Desktop web application.

Music notation on is very easy to use, and the music I produced with it was used in our church carol concert.

It certainly doesn’t look like I will lose anything switching to a Chromebook.  Certainly, there is a way to go in encompassing offline web apps, but with Google leading the way, and other developers following, it won't be too long before the hiccups are cleared up. HTML standards are always getting better. What would I gain? A practice which allows my work to be synchronised in the cloud.  A device which boots up within 8 seconds.  A lightweight machine (in comparison to my MacBook Pro).  A potentially faster device due to having less to do (just running the Chrome browser essentially!)

That was my conclusion from my week-long Chrome challenge... in hindsight, the Chromebook was the right decision... so far! I still have my MacBook Pro, but I have not opened it once since I got my Chromebook.  My next blog series will be on my Chromebook experience thus far.  If you want any advice concerning the Chrome browser, Chrome OS or the Chromebook, please do not hesitate to ask!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Chrome Challenge Day 5/6 - Road Testing

My Chrome Challenge - For 1 week, I will use nothing but the Chrome browser to do everything I need to do on a laptop.

So am I actually producing anything? I wouldn't want you to think I was cheating by not being my usual productive self.

Right now, I am typing up my day 5 & 6 Chrome browsing activities from a brand new Chromebook - sponsored very kindly by the Chrome OS team at Google! I have not touched my MacBook Pro since I received it, so there must be something to this Chrome business right?

Turns out working with Chrome is pretty convenient.  During day 5 & 6, I had a presentation to prepare for. Given the presentation was for work, I would be within my rules to simply use Microsoft Power point to produce this.  But I thought it would be a good time to practice working with other Google Drive applications.

Enter Google Presentation:

If you are used to Microsoft's Powerpoint (I'm talking the older, non-confusing Office version of Powerpoint), then the layout will look familiar to you.  I lose nothing by using this online tool to construct my presentation - but I certainly gain something!

If you look to the right, there is a "Research" tab. Given Google's forte is in search, it only makes sense that they include a nice non-intrusive search tool to help in your research for your presentation. How convenient is that? Also, any images that I might want to use on my presentation can be sought from that same tab.  Other advantages include the ability to share your presentation with others - controlling whether they can read or edit it.  When starting the presentation, the web page goes into full screen.  I missed nothing from my desktop applications.

What else did I need to do? My Android app, the Cyman System needed updating (non-developers can skip this paragraph).  Not the actual Android part, which I normally do at home anyway on my Mac Mini, but the "Cyman brain" which resides on a service I maintain in the cloud.  For this, I used the PythonAnywhere Web application which I mentioned on Day 3.  I cannot do this and test it offline, but I found that there was no time I was offline anyway (this was a recurring theme throughout the challenge).  I was either using my home wireless, or tethering through my Google Nexus 4 smartphone.  I liked my experience so much I even upgraded to a paid version ($5 per month) of PythonAnywhere to enable me to access any url from my linux develepment box, and to have ssh access to it too.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to look at WeVideo.  Video editing is something I do every now and then for fun. I am genuinely surprised at the power of this application given it is a Web app.  Web development really has come a long way! The app starts by giving you a choice of how to edit your video depending on your video editing experience.

Next, you are able to import videos from various sources:
Drive, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Dropbox and more! (For your Google+ photos, choose Picasa).  I tried using my Facebook videos, but unfortunately the app was only able to view everything but videos. Well, at least I know that of Google Drive, Picasa (Google+) and Dropbox work ok.  Of course it is possible to upload videos from your local file system, but I am increasingly keen on working in the cloud.  The more apps that connect to cloud sources like Google Drive, Dropbox et al, the better.

I can't say there weren't a few hiccups along the way, mostly to do with my session randomly ending and having to log in again.  But I didn't lose any work along the way.  As a bonus, your final video product is stored in Google Drive.  Normally, when using iMovie, I have to wait for the final video to be produced... and wait... and wait.  After which I can upload it to YouTube for example.  But in the case of WeVideo through Chrome, I can start the process of video publishing and then leave to go somewhere else.  I get sent an email when the publishing is complete - which is published privately to Google Drive if you wish.  I can then upload it to YouTube or any other video sharing site from anywhere in the world!

So my experience for days 5 & 6 have shown me that the future envisioned for Chrome, and indeed HTML 5, means thinking differently.  It means I lean towards storing my content privately online instead of locally on my desktop.  The return? The ability to access and edit my content from virtually anywhere in the world with an internet connection.  I carry around a connection to the internet 90% of the time.  It's called my Nexus 4.  Lucky me!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Chrome Challenge Day 4 - Productive Utilities

My Chrome Challenge - For 1 week, I will use nothing but the Chrome browser to do everything I need to do on a laptop

...and I want my Chrome browser to help me proactively.  Enter Extensions.

I have rambled on about Chrome Extensions and Chrome Web Applications, so just in case anyone is left behind I will explain the difference between the two as far as the user is concerned.

Chrome Web Applications are essentially links to web sites which are designed to operate and look like a traditional desktop application.  (For example, Google Doc Spreadsheets allow you to do on the web what you could do in Microsoft Excel on the desktop)

Chrome Extensions are utilities that  usually live next to your search bar (or, more accurately, omni-box).  They provide snippets of content to either aid your browsing experience by adding content to the pages you normally browse, or to give you bits of live information (like your to do list, calendar, Google+ notifications, etc). The screenshot below is a cheap plug for my up-and-coming Cyman Mark 3 Chrome Extension

Extension Example: (Unreleased) Cyman Mark 3 which pops out from the extension icon. The other extensions either do this or open another web page on a different tab

Does this difference sound familiar? Those of you who use an Android device would be used to the concepts of widgets and apps.  Chrome Extensions are like widgets, and Chrome Web Apps are like full applications.

So what extension options do we have here? As you can see from my screenshot, I have a number of them.  The Google Calendar extension is very useful.  On the icon it shows the time remaining until your next event.  If you hover over it, a tool-tip shows you the next event details, and if you click on the extension icon, a pop up similar to the Cyman Mark 3 appears showing your agenda for the coming days.

One extension I have mentioned in earlier postings is "Awesome Screenshot", which takes screenshots of the active page and allows you to annotate the resulting image.  You can save this locally on your machine, or on Google Drive. I have used it most of the time to take screenshots for this blog series.

Another useful extension is one that many of you may be used to already.  Sometimes, you could across a page in a different language to yours, and Chrome offers to translate the page for you.  Well, with the Google Translate extension, you can do that anytime you want.  (This is an example of an extension which edits the page you are looking at.) Are you learning another language? Using this tool would make for good practice.

Many of the popular social network and productivity apps have extensions too which a lot of you would be familiar with.  Evernote for taking quick notes and clips, Instagram for your feed, Google+ and Facebook to show many notifications you have and a preview of your feed, for your to do management... the list is endless!  Just like Android widgets, you can have nice productive utilities on your Chrome browser to help you along.

One nifty extension I quite like is Lyrics.  When you are playing a YouTube clip, or a Google Music track, it edits your web page to display the lyrics to the track! (Providing it can find it)  Failing that, you can help the tool search for the lyrics - this is helpful if your music is poorly named, like "Track 4" for example.  There are downsides to using extensions which act on websites they do not own - if the website changes in structure, the extension would not work too well until it is updated.  For instance, as far as I could tell, this extension does not work on the new YouTube pages (which is why I have not provided the link).  If Google created the extension, they would have made sure it worked with their changes.  Something to bear in mind whilst Extension-shopping.

For the developers and programmers out there, there are many extensions to help you develop.  I'm quite fond of JSONView, which formats JSON into a nice readable format.  Or the Page Ruler extension to help you with your web site styling, making sure certain elements are aligned.

I could go on forever here.  Instead, I will invite you to take a look at the extensions Chome has to offer right here!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Chrome Challenge Day 3 - Programming Investigation

My Chrome Challenge - For 1 week, I will use nothing but the Chrome browser to do everything I need to do on a laptop.

...including programming!

I already knew a lot of things I could do in Chrome without needing my desktop applications, but one that I was in the dark about was where it came to programming.  Software developers like myself are used to using IDE's like Eclipse, IntelliJ, Xcode and Visual Studio.  Others of us (myself included) prefer using a unix-based terminal to do our development.

So what choices does the Chrome Web Store offer?

Selfishly, I thought about my purposes first.  When developing the Cyman System, I tend to do my Android development at home anyway.  On my laptop I use the Chrome Remote Desktop web app to connect to my computer at home, so effectively I am using Chrome.  Don't believe I can connect to a desktop computer through Chrome like that? Take a look at the screenshot below:

Chrome within a Chrome? Sounds like Inception...

So if you have a computer at home where you have your development environment set up, the Chrome Remote Desktop web app solves the issue of coding on the go.  If you don't, you need somewhere to host and run your code.  There are several hosting services around that allow you to access your files through an online file manager (essentially a web app of their own) or through ssh for you terminal aficionados.  So what we need now is a secure shell terminal access point.  Something to take the place of the desktop app "Putty".

Enter the Secure Shell web application from Chrome.  Simple to use, you are able to access whichever host you need to, provided you have the credentials.  It even saves previous connections much like Putty does.

The web application which suited my purposes more accurately is a web application called PythonAnywhere.  It is a fully-featured Python programming environment that also includes free web app hosting! There are paid for accounts that grant you more controls, but the free version is just fine.

Aside from programming Python, you have a linux environment with a good amount of control.  There is a Ruby interpreter, your favourite editors, whether Vim or Emacs (go Vim!), regular shell scripts and more!  To add to this, you can host a web application you already have by transferring files through a Dropbox account.  All it takes is sharing a folder with an official PythonAnywhere email address and hey, presto! I'm testing out Cyman within my Chrome browser!

Testing Cyman right inside Chrome
Given, Chrome is a web browser, it is no surprise that there are so many web development IDE's each with their own merits.  You can test out HTML5, JavaScript and CSS3 all within the browser and even upload them.

The best I have seen is called Cloud IDE.  It resembles your classic IDE and allows you to upload your code to Amazon Services, Google App Engine, Heroku and more.  Of course, you could just use it as a code editor too.  I have not yet been bold enough to update Cyman using this tool yet, but I will.  So far, this is the only web app I have seen that will serve my purposes in updating Cyman.  However, one thing it is missing, is connection to Dropbox.  This means that after changing and testing Cyman on the PythonAnywhere web app, I would need to upload a zip file of everything to Cloud IDE to release it.  Obviously, this is not ideal, so I will keep looking around.

But whilst I have Chrome Remote Desktop to connect to my Mac Mini at home, I am in the clear - still following the rules of my Chrome Challenge!

For those Java developers out there, there is a web application called RunTime IDE which not only allows you to code Java, JavaScript and Python, but has Dropbox integration and even GTalk integration for collaboration with other programmers.  It's in beta right now, but appears to be doing very well.

Overall, I have found great resources, depending on what you need to do.  The open source coders are generally catered for.  It's the .NET programmers out there, and Java programmers who cannot use anything but a fully featured IDE to work that are affected the most.  Web apps still have a way to go in this area.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Chrome Challenge Day 2 - Creativity

My Chrome Challenge - For 1 week, I will use nothing but the Chrome browser to do everything I need to do on a laptop.

On day 2, I was feeling a little artistic. Not least because I needed to prepare some music I was writing for distribution.

Generally, good music notation software for desktop is costly, but worth it.  Most people would have heard of Sibelius.  As an open source lover (i.e. software cheapskate) I found a free desktop music software called MuseScore which has its limitations, but does the job.

Considering the Chrome Challenge, I need an online music notation software (and fast!).  Unfortunately, there was nothing in the Chrome Web Store.  But a web application is just a web site designed to work like a desktop application.  So I googled for free onilne music notation software and found the perfect candidate! Well, almost perfect...

Noteflight is a great online music notation tool.  The free account gives you access to 10 scores you can write and export to pdf.  It does play what you are writing too.  It's easy to use, and you can always re-use one of your 10 scores once you have exported your masterpiece.

Only thing missing? Offline support.  It isn't in the Chrome Web Store, so it was not designed with that in mind, but I will certainly be suggesting this feature! Also I am online at least 80% of the time (tethering through my trusty Nexus 4) so it isn't too much of an issue for me.

What other creative apps are there in the Chrome store?  Instagram is available as a Chrome extension, so whatever page you happen to be browsing, you can always click on the icon next to your search bar to see your Instagram stream to comment on.  There are plenty of photo editing web apps in the Chrome Store.  From simple apps like Sketchpad to more fully featured Photoshop-like web apps like Pixlr.

Imagine the power of Photoshop all in the browser, that saves onto Google Drive in the cloud! That is what this application claims.  The reviews are great, but I'm not an advanced user like my wife.  It's for people like her to judge how good this is.  Like I say, the reviews are good!

If you feel like changing how your Chrome looks and feels, there are several themes in the Chrome Store.  So you can change it as much as you like. If you're not a fan of the hundreds of themes available, you can create your own with many web apps like My Chrome Theme.  It let's you upload an image for your background, and colour the Chrome browser frame and text as you will.

That's all I'll mention for now for the creative amongst you.  There is one more thing I would like to explore at another time - a web based video editor! One was shared with me on Google+ called WeVideo.  That's for another day...

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Chrome Challenge Day 1 - The Terms and Conditions

My Chrome Challenge - For 1 week, I will use nothing but the Chrome browser to do everything I need to do on a laptop

Well... sort of.

The point of this exercise is to determine if it's worth purchasing a Chromebook which houses the Chrome OS - an operating system based almost entirely on the Chrome browser.  The Chromebook has a few extras which makes it a little more like Windows or Mac OS X.
- A file system
- Ability to run movie files in the browser (codecs, for the more technical amongst you)

One other thing to mention is that the Chromebook is designed to compete against tablets. (The observant ones among you will notice Google also have Android tablets out there. Which product do they trust in more? Chrome OS or Android? That's another discussion)

So here are my terms and conditions:
  • I will use the Chrome browser on my (dying) Mac OS X but here are my conditions:
    • I will not jeopardise my day job - at work I will be using Windows and Linux where necessary.  This exercise is strictly for my laptop
    • At home, I have a fully functional Mac Mini.  I intend to keep it that way.  Again, the exercise is for my Macbook Pro which I take around with me.
    • I will use my Mac filesystem.  Chrome OS has a filesystem, the Chrome browser does not. So I need to compensate.
I think these are fair conditions and you are free to disagree.

So without further ado, I shall give my first day experience.  I will try to give links to useful Chrome Web applications as I go along.

Offline works!

The first thing I wanted to try was doing my work offline.  Plus I needed a way of taking notes for my blog without always being online.  So I went shopping on the Chrome Web Store for some web apps!  (Remember, web apps are essentially web sites designed to look and operate like a desktop application.  Chrome extensions however are little utilities that usually sit next to your search bar in Chrome)

Google have made it obvious which apps work offline.  Take a look at the annotated screenshot below.  A screenshot which I took with a Chrome extension called "Awesome Screenshot".  I'm serious about this challenge!

The Scratchpad app has a nice simple interface, and a pop up mode which makes it look and feel like a desktop application.  You wouldn't know it's a web application.  Behind the scenes, it saves the scratchpad to a folder in Google Drive called "Scratchpad".  Google Drive is what Google Docs used to be.  Now, it is like Dropbox (a cloud based file system) but it comes with applications to edit the files.  You can work on documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and much more.  All accessible from any web browser.  So a folder here is perfect to store my notes.

How about Google Drive itself?  Whilst there, if you look at the menu on the left hand side, you can see an Offline option, where you can opt for offline documents.  All your documents are then saved in the browser.  Of course, I tested this out whilst on the tube.  Lo and behold, I was tapping away editing my spreadsheets within Chrome as if I was using Microsoft Excel without so much as an internet connection.  Once I did get internet connection, the documents synchronised in the cloud again.

It's worth noting that I have an Unlimited Internet plan with my Google Nexus 4, which makes using Chrome that much better.  As long as I have 3G phone connection, I can tether and provide access to the internet to my laptop and therefore to my Chrome browser.

What else can I do offline?  The essentials I could think of were GMail and Google Calendar.  There is an Offline GMail application in the Chrome Web Store and Calendar has an offline option if you click on the gear icon for settings. The only disappointing thing was that Google Calendar offline is read-only.

Offline games.  Searching the Chrome Store for offline games was pretty straightforward.  Just look for the lightning icon and you can play away on those games without any internet connection.

In the evening, I needed to connect to work.  In my terms and conditions, I said I would use work applications on Windows for my day job.  But I was at home.  Normally I would use Remote Desktop to connect to my Windows computer at work.  But as far as my Mac is concerned I am under contract to use Chrome only...

Chrome RDP to the rescue! The interface for this Chrome Web application was just like the Microsoft RDP Desktop application.  The experience was smooth, not laggy and I was able to get my work done.  Not too shabby! There is a similar web application for connecting to your own PC's called Chrome Remote Desktop.  I use that to connect to and operate my Mac Mini at home... all through the Chrome Browser. 

So what do we have on Day 1?
GMail, Google Calendar, documents, spreadsheets, various games all available offline (and more)
Connecting to my work computer or home computer using remote desktop through the Chrome browser

...not too shabby for a first day.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Chrome Challenge

How much time do we spend on the browser? Does the future of desktop technology lie solely on a browser like Google Chrome?

Some people know me as the creator of Cyman System, a digital butler currently on Android.  Others simply know me as a Google product fan.  And no, the blog post title does not help.

 I am generally fascinated by the way we use technology tomorrow.  I am a technophile.  As a software developer, I like to help the process forward every now and then.  Hence the Cyman System I developed (shameless plug number 2).

Google appears to be convinced that our future lies on the web.  Their Chrome Browser has been biting on the heels of Internet Explorer as the most popular browser globally.  According to W3C, since August they actually have the highest web browser market share (

But Google did not stop there.  They have created an operating system to compete with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux called Chrome OS which is essentially just a Chrome Browser with a few extras.  In layman's terms? Google believes that we can do everything we need to do on just a web browser. Is this far fetched? It may not be as crazy as it sounds.  Read on...

More and more of us now own smart phones and tablets. What do we do offline? Perhaps playing games, reading, note-taking, and checking calendar? Although games are increasingly social, books are downloaded from the internet, calendars and notes are synchronised on the cloud.  These all need internet connections.  On our PC's there are other offline applications we might use frequently.  Writing documents, spreadsheets, editing photos, editing videos, email and much more.  But again, if we really look at how much time we spend offline vs online, some of us might realise the shift to online activities.

Chrome OS and indeed the Chrome browser have apps and an app store too.  These apps are essentially well designed websites which utilise key HTML5 technology to allow some offline activities.  Believe it or not, you can edit word documents and spreadsheets with the Google Drive web application without being online.  Once online, it will synchronise it in the cloud for you.  This goes for other key web applications.  You can view your mail offline with GMail, and you can even view your Google Calendar offline.

Some of my Chrome web applications

With all this in mind, is there a web application for everything we need to do? Is it worth purchasing a Chromebook? A laptop which boasts a Chrome OS, an operating system based completely on the Chrome browser - nothing else.  In the next few blog entries I intend to find out if this is possible. I will be taking on what I have called the Chrome challenge.

The Chrome Challenge - For 1 week, I will use nothing but the Chrome browser to do everything I need to do on a laptop.

From the 3rd of December until the 10th, all my word documents, spreadsheet editing, even programming will all be done through the browser. I will be documenting the web applications I find, and the difficulties I come across.  At the end of the week I will give my conclusion. I have done some preparation work.  I know I need to write some music, so I have found a music notation web application.  The most challenging part is programming.  How does one code without a traditional desktop? Only using a browser?

These questions will be answered during the next week!

Please like, +1 and share this blog!