Google: ‘We’re focused on enabling the next 1bn computer users’

20 Mar 2013

The latest Chromebook Pixel

The democratising effect of technology that is seeing billions of people around the world join the internet revolution as they switch on their first mobile phones and computers is a guiding principle behind the advent of Google’s Chrome OS and the various Chromebook devices, said Google’s Chromebook product manager Caesar Sengupta. The plan, he said, is to put computers in the hands of the next 1bn people.

Last night, the first Google Chromebook devices from Samsung Chromebook and Acer (C7) went on sale in Ireland on Dixons’ and Amazon’s online stores. The machines will be available in PC World and Currys retail stores later this month. Elsewhere in the world, the Chromebook has been No 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list for laptops in the US every day since it launched some 150 days ago and Chromebooks now represent more than 10pc of notebook sales at Currys and PC World, the largest electronics retailer in the UK.

The Chromebook is a new class of notebook computer that Google has produced with its manufacturing partners that makes use of the Chrome OS to drive the machine. The Chrome OS is derived from Google’s popular Chrome web browser and users access their web pages and apps through the lens of a browser window.


Google’s Chromebook product manager Caesar Sengupta

This vision is directly at odds with the structure of computing espoused by Microsoft and Apple, where the browser is a mere app within a complex operating system.

Is Chrome OS the next Android?

I put it to Sengupta that Google is endeavouring to achieve the same impact on personal computing that the search giant has achieved with Android. According to IDC, 70.1pc of smartphones shipped in the pivotal fourth quarter of 2012 were Android-based devices.

“The hint is in the name. Chrome is the area of the browser that has menus, toolbars and sidebars and when we started off one of the goals was to get the Chrome to disappear and allow people to just experience their favourite applications. The project initially started out as an interesting name, but quickly our goal became to take the Chrome out of the way and just let people get to their favourite apps. Forget that you are using a computer and just interact with the apps. That’s our goal.

“We found that most traditional computers were just too complex. Most computer users are non-techies and we believe the whole computer ecosystem has evolved in a way that is too complex for regular people. So the model is broken. Computers have become a hassle. A microwave just does what its supposed to do and the same should be true for computers. People shouldn’t have to look after a computer, worry about virus protection or install special software to keep the machine working. So our goal was to make it simple and secure and get the machine out of the way so people can just do what they mean to do.”

The model Sengupta is describing fits with Google’s metamorphosis from an online search player into a multi-screen computing powerhouse. You can see this happening through the success of devices powered by Android from Sony, Samsung and LG. You can see it in the interesting Nexus 4, 7 and 10 family. And I get the sense you will see the same spread of functionality through Chromebook devices made by Samsung, Acer and HP and the others who will follow.

In fact, what Google is doing with Chromebook reminds me of what Google software engineer Lars Bak said last year about the purpose of the Chrome browser in the first place – to up the game in terms of what browsers in general can do.

In recent weeks, Google revealed the Chrome Pixel, a higher-end device that boasts 4.3m pixels. I put it to Sengupta that perhaps Google is on a quest to simplify computing across the board and at the same time up hardware standards. “We as Google want to address what users need and what they want rather than create specific products and make our services available across screens regardless of device.

“The Chrome browser works well on Windows, Mac, Android and on the Chromebook. Our goal is to make all our services available everywhere. What is really important is that consistency is maintained across screens. We think features like ‘tab sync’ where you get the same set of tabs across devices are really magical experiences for the user.”

Sengupta said the Chrome OS is a completely open-source product that includes sandboxing for security so users never have to worry about virus software. “What we wanted was for overall computing to get better. Google benefits if more people use the web and the more people who use our services via the web the better it is for us. The same principle applies with Chromebooks. We recently launched the Chromebook Pixel, which is a high-end, beautiful machine that combines touch with very high DPI – we wanted to inspire the entire ecosystem of app developers to create better applications for touch and high DPI displays.”

Connecting the next 1bn computer users

Achieving goals like topping the Amazon charts and accounting for 10pc of hardware sales for core computer retailers like Dixons shows that Google intends the Chrome OS family of devices to be as prevalent as Mac or Windows machines. In the US, Chromebooks now account for up to 10pc of Acer’s sales.

“Do we envisage Chromebooks being widely used? Absolutely. For us it is an important strategic mission and part of what you are seeing is us making this product and experience available to more and more people.

“Expect to see a lot of people adopt these devices because currently computers as we know them are not suited to the way people live their lives. This is our vision of how consumers will consume computing in the future.”

I put it to Sengupta that at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the mobile network operators were consumed by the challenge of connecting the next 1bn mobile users. But what about the next 1bn computer users? Is that where Google is focused?

“How do we see it playing out? We are focused on enabling the next 1bn computer users. What we’ve seen with Android on phones we envisage a similar trajectory for laptops and desktops. Right now people are getting their first mobile phones, but simultaneously there is another wave of people buying their first laptops and tablet computers.

“The average family member above the age of 15 in the world today carries a mobile phone. But many still share a computer? Why is that? It is because up until now they were expensive and complicated. A hassle. Families are going to soon get to the point where everybody has a computer. For me that is one of my dreams and goals for computing.

“I grew up in India and I see the potential for the democratising effect in terms of society and economy that could occur if everybody had a computer and was connected.”

Sengupta has a point. If you look back 10 or 12 years, search – Google’s core business – was complicated. Now it is the first thing you see when you look at your mobile phone’s screen or at a browser window.

“The beauty of the Chrome OS is the devices still do all the complex stuff in the background and in the cloud, leaving the average user to just get to the apps and services they need. By sandboxing everything and putting defence in depth, we are hiding the overall complexity or the user. We worked very closely with our OEM partners and what you will see is a computing experience that is very different from Windows.”

Boosting hardware standards

You can sense this endeavour in the carefully designed trackpad and keyboard and in the fact the device boots very quickly. Its as if Google’s engineers decided to redesign the personal computer without all the added clutter and complexity.

Sengupta said the hint to where Google sees computing going can be seen in the new Chromebook Pixel, which has 4.3m pixels. “Up until now a lot of computers came with 1,280 x 800 screens. We have pushed to have a screen that has 2,560 x 1,700 touchscreen resolution.

“We want all screens in the future to be high density and in personal computing touch is going to be increasingly important.”

Battery life is also the bane of most computing users’ lives and Sengupta said the emphasis is on low-power processors and machines without fans. The Samsung and Acer C7 machines can run for six hours of real usage. “There is a lot of stuff you can do with the core hardware and software stack to boost the energy performance of computers. For example, when the machines are in sleep mode you can reduce power as much as possible. Plus the latest CPUs from ARM and Intel are all focused on the same thing, reducing power usage.

“I would be happy if one day we will have devices that you don’t have to charge.

“I do think we’re getting there,” he added.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years