Ina Fried

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Google Launches First Chromebooks, Adds In-App Payments to Chrome Web Store

After a raft of Android-related announcements on Tuesday, talk at Google’s developer conference is shifting on Wednesday to the company’s Chrome browser and Chrome OS operating system.

John Paczkowski and I will have live, exhaustive team coverage from Google I/O once the keynote starts around 9:30 am PT.

9:25 am: Like every other tech conference these days, they are no longer as concerned about our cellphones ringing as they are about our mobile hotspots sucking up precious bandwidth.

“Please turn off your mobile hotspots,” intones the British-sounding announcer. Don’t worry, we’ve got a wired connection so we are good to go.

9:29 am: One minute to go. Hope you are saying good bye to your PC or Mac right now.

Well, maybe you better hang on to it. At least until the keynote is over.

9:30 am: And Vic Gundotra takes the stage.

9:30 am: 60,000 simultaneous viewers for Google I/O on the Web yesterday with 600,000 total viewers, Gundotra said.

Attendees not only getting the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but also a Verizon LTE hotspot. Gundotra rattles off its typically zippy speeds.

“Typical areas do not include this room,” he added.

9:32 am: And, with that he gives way to SVP of Chrome Sundar Pichai.

9:33 am: “We are here to talk about the open Web, the amazing platform it is,” Pichai said, saying his talk will cover Chrome, Chome Web Store and Chrome OS–in that order.

As of last year 70 million people used Chrome as their main browser. Now that number is 160 million people, according to a giant chart behind Pichai.

“We have more than doubled in the last year and we couldn’t be more pleased,” he said.

9:34 am: Pichai notes that, as of last year, Chrome didn’t have Mac and Linux support–”the two other great platforms.”

There have been eight versions of Chrome since, with new versions now coming out every six weeks.

9:36 am: “The good news is we are not the only ones pushing the browser forward.”

Pichai says that all the modern browsers are working to support HTML 5. “You as developers can rely on these APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).”

Methinks the talk is about to get nerdy.

9:37 am: Ian Ellison-Taylor comes out to talk about the developer capabilities of HTML 5.

“We’re not resting on our laurels at Google,” he said. “New features are being added all the time.”

With that, Ellison-Taylor starts a demo, starting with the addition of voice control to the browser.

Ellison-Taylor shows how voice recognition in the browser can work by adding a single control to a search bar that wasn’t designed for speech.

He notes he is violating a rule which says don’t do live speech recognition demos in keynotes.

His search for “Emma Caufield” actually worked. “I’m genuinely surprised that works,” Ellison-Taylor said.

A second demo, using Google Translate, correctly translated “Welcome to San Francisco”–at least judging by the applause from the crowd.

9:44 am: It’s getting nerdy. Talk of sprite animation, Canvas and so forth.

Thankfully, he’s doing something even I can understand–the little demo of the fish swimming. He shows the poor fish swimming slowly when Chrome is pure software.

Hardware acceleration allows 500 fish to swim at 60 frames a second. By 1,000 fish, though, it drops to 30 frames per second.

“That’s basically a 10X improvement over where we were,” he said. He then shows a demo of some Mozilla code that offers another 10 times increase in performance, with the screen filled with tens of thousands of fish all swimming around swimmingly.

I think this means that it will also run my Web sites faster.

9:48 am: Pichai translates to English, noting that a browser-based game can now run 100 times faster than it could six months ago.

“That’s the pace at which the Web is evolving,” Pichai said. Of course, that only matters if you can reach users, he said, segueing into talk of the Chrome Web Store.

Pichai said that Google is making the Chrome Web Store available in 41 languages and to all 160 million of its users. “We want to make sure you can reach all users of Chrome.”

It’s also important to monetize. Charging for Web apps is already supported, but hard to do in-context within apps.

9:50 am: And surprise, the answer is in-app payments.

9:51 am: Google’s Vikas Gupta is talking about how this is being done with Web apps.

He shows a free Web app called Graphicly Comics. They want to allow users to start reading a comic book and let them get hooked before charging them.

The key is being able to do so within the flow of the app. It can be done with a couple clicks. It’s also easy for developers, Gupta said, saying that a single line of code can enable Google’s in-app payments.

9:53 am: That leaves the question of how to charge. There tend to be fixed fees, monthly fees, signup fees and licensing fees, with content publishers also being charged 30 percent.

Google is charging a flat 5 percent fee, Gupta said, eliciting lots of whoops and applause. “95 percent stays with you,” he says, helping out the severely math-challenged in the crowd.

9:54 am: Pichai is back, showcasing a game that could not have been on the Web a year ago. One of the leading games is coming to the Web.

And, of course, it’s Angry Birds. Mighty Eagle Peter Vesterbacka taking the stage.

Vesterbacka is decked out in his familiar red sweatshirt with an Angry Bird face.

“We’ve wanted to bring Angry Birds to the Web for a long, long time,” he said. “We didn’t want to compromise on performance.”

The Web version, he insists, is as fun and engaging as any other version, and starts with a demo.

9:57 am: Google’s demo master clears the first level with two birds, earning two stars, in case you were wondering.

We built this using WebGL, Vesterbacka said.

“It really rocks, as you can see,” he said. It also works with Canvas if your browser doesn’t support WebGL. If your browser supports hardware acceleration there is an HD version.

So what if you are offline? We use local storage.

“You can play the complete game offline,” Vesterbacka said. Now we’ll make those flights more bearable, he said, noting that when your Android phone runs out of battery, you can play on your Chrome Netbook.

As a special treat for users of Chrome, there are some exclusive levels.

Vesterbacka says he is happy to hear Google is only taking 5 percent on in-app purchases.

“We’re all for lower taxes and five percent (is) fair,” he said. As a result, Rovio is bringing the paid “mighty eagle” helper to Chrome soon, basically as soon as the in-app purchase is live.

10:02 am: The Web version is available now in the Chrome Web store, he said. “Let’s pop some pigs and play Angry Birds,” he said, ending the mini-commercial.

Pichai comes back, pointing to the launch of Angry Birds as the culmination of the last year of work his team has been doing.

“More importantly, my kids will think finally I am doing something useful,” Pichai said.

10:04 am: Aaron Koblin comes out to talk about a new interactive music project that Google is doing called “Three Dreams of Black.”

10:10 am: Talk shifts to Chrome OS.

Just to use a browser requires lots of complexity, from antivirus software to managing backups, etc. It takes a long time to boot, Pichai said.

“Some computers even check to see whether there is a floppy drive.”

10:10 am: The devices Google is powering are called “Chromebooks.”

The devices take three minutes to get up and running out of the box and eight seconds from there on. There are built-in connectivity options, pay as you go with a certain amount of free usage and the option to buy day passes.

“I think this is game changing in terms of how you use your notebooks,” Pichai said. “These are some of the attributes that make phones and tablets great as well.”

It’s a reverse of the PC model. Chromebooks get better over time, Pichai said, as new updates come.

PCs, on the other hand, are great the day you get them and performance degrades over time as new apps are installed.

He reviews the Cr-48 pilot program which gave demo hardware to thousands of people. “The feedback has been great,” he insists. “We have fixed some issues we had with Cr-48.”

They worked with Adobe for seamless Flash. Now Intel has dual-core apps. It fixed holes, such as when you plugged a camera in to the demo devices, nothing happened.

That’s changed, he said, bringing back Kan Liu, who previously demoed Angry Birds.

10:15 am: As expected, there is a new file manager for dealing with local files. The file manager can be opened within another tab in Chrome OS.

Liu demos how music and movies can be stored and played back within a new media player.

10:17 am: Google Music beta and YouTube movie rentals will work as well as third-party services like Hulu, Netflix and Pandora.

As for photos, Liu demos what it is like to import photos in Chrome OS.

One can take an SD card and plug it into a Chrome OS laptop. There are options to view and play a slideshow, but it can also use Web apps and send them to Picasa or third-party services such as Box.net.

10:20 am: The same approach is used with documents like spreadsheets; it can also share with Google Docs.

Any Web service or Web app can leverage the same APIs to do file storage. Box.net has been an early partner for this.

Google is working with a lot of other companies, such as Dropbox, Liu said, noting that Box.net built its integration in a weekend.

10:23 am: Offline access is also important, Pichai said. All Chromebook users will have access to Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar by the summer.

Other apps already work offline, such as Angry Birds and USA Today.

10:24 am: On to the hardware details. Intel is the lead chip partner, along with Verizon for connectivity in the U.S. and Acer and Samsung.

Working with other carriers.

Samsung’s Chromebook is a 12.1-inch screen display with instant-on and all day battery life.

Acer’s Chromebook has a 6.5 hour battery, 11.6-inch screen, full HD display.

Samsung $429 for Wi-Fi only, 3G version is $499. Acer is priced starting at $349 and up.

On June 15 in Amazon.com and Best Buy.com available to order and at the same time in UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy.

10:27 am: For developers, there is a full jailbreaking mode built in so they can play with the kernel.

10:28 am: Pichai is talking now about business and education markets, talking about the complexity, noting that over half of companies are still running Windows XP–a 10-year-old operating system.

“Meanwhile, usage patterns have changed dramatically,” he said.

Most companies spend $3,000 or more per computer per year to manage. “It’s really complicated,” Pichai said.

Some 50,000 companies applied to pilot Cr-48 devices, Pichai said.

Chromebooks have been deployed in hundreds of companies, with thousands of devices.

On the government side, Pichai said that the city of Orlando is piloting Chrome OS. (Interesting, as Miami is a huge Windows user and early adopter of Windows 7.)

10:31 am: Same two Chromebooks will be available to businesses, but some also want a desktop. “We are working on a Chrome Box as well.”

The device is only part of the cost. Design a Web console for IT administrators to manage all their Chromebooks. “It’s dead simple to manage,” Pichai said.

Chromebooks for business is a hardware and service package with Chromebox, support, warranty and replacements. When the hardware lifecycle is over, we automatically upgrade you to new hardware, Pichai said, all for $28 per user per month. “We think this can fundamentally change” corporate computing.

10:33 am: Now, education.

“We want to make it possible for every student to have a computer.” Chromebooks for education are priced at $20 per user.

Chromebooks will be available for schools, businesses and governments on June 15 in the U.S. and six other countries.

10:35 am: Cue video.

Here’s a summary:

It’s not a computer. Nope. No programs. No messy desktop. Not even a desktop background.

Can I use it anywhere? Yes. On a unicycle. “Our lawyers aren’t going to like that.”

It updates automatically. No antivirus.

Web site is Google.com/chromebook for more info.

“We think users are really ready for this,” Pichai said.

10:37 am: And now, his Oprah moment. “We want to make sure every I/O attendee gets a free Chromebook.” Big cheers.

These are available on June 15. (slight sighs) “We will send you an email with details.”


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus