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Google has announced that it's launching a new operating system, the Google Chrome OS, sometime in the next 12 months or so. Dan thinks this makes it inevitable that Microsoft will come out with a netbook operating system sometime in the next two years. The arms race between Google and Microsoft is likely to dominate the computing landscape for at least the next 12 months, if not much longer.
The competition between the two is a battle to control the high ground of "cloud computing." That's when your computer itself doesn't really do a whole lot of work, but instead relies upon the power of servers out there on the Internet to do the work for it. Dan says Larry Ellison predicted cloud computing years ago, and we're seeing it now in the emergence of Google Documents, which allows the user to do word-processing and spreadsheet work without ever installing a program on the computer. The promise of cloud computing is that it can make a lot of things portable that were previously tied down to the desktop. But the reality may not really match up with the hype. Internet access still isn't 100% reliable -- you probably lose your Internet connection far more often than you lose other utilities, like your electrical power or your municipal water service. But as people have gained experience with services like RSS feed readers (like Google Reader and others), they've started to gain a certain new level of comfort with some of the client-server gap that makes cloud computing what it is. And in certain ways, those services are showing us how some of those cloud services could continue working even if your computer is offline -- take, for instance, Google Reader's capacity to store some of your RSS feeds offline, so you can read them on a laptop on an airplane, for instance.
But as all of this takes place, we're still going to have to see whether Google and Microsoft can evolve in ways that don't take them too far away from what made them strong to begin with. After all, search engines and operating systems are pretty dissimilar objects. And with Windows 7 on the way soon, Microsoft is wagering a lot on the success of its operating system juggernaut. The Google Chrome OS is quite obviously a direct attack on that powerful position. Dan points out that Apple long ago made peripherals like printers, but got out of the business when it became clear that making printers really wasn't part of its core competency. Was that focus or narrow-mindedness? It's hard to tell while things are happening in real time.
Marc Andreessen has made a peculiar claim, to the effect that Twitter could succeed because it's not trying to make money. That statement is only slightly true. You can't make money without a plan to do so. But on the other hand, you could plaster your car with bumper stickers and turn your outbound voice mail into an infomercial, and people will just stop talking to you. There are big differences between trying to make money and trying too hard to monetize everything. When people turn their Twitter accounts or Facebook pages into shameless attempts to solicit attention, they only serve to annoy the rest of us. But if a business puts up a Twitter account or a Facebook fan page, then never does anything to build value there for both the public and the company itself, then there was really no point to ever starting those things in the first place.
Speaking of Facebook, the rather significant error in judgment displayed by the wife of Britain's foreign-intelligence office is a good example of why it's important to think first before putting anything online. Once it gets out there, it usually stays out there. Forever. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use the Internet for things like social networking...but it does mean that if you're married to a spy, you probably shouldn't blab about it.
Can a Styrofoam cup thrown from a passing car break a windshield? Yes. And that's just one fine example of how the same kind of science that tends to make many eyes glaze over in boredom can actually be used to engage people and improve public scientific literacy, which is only going to become more important over time.
For those who don't feel like shelling out big money to buy Microsoft Office, but who don't feel like Google Documents offers enough features yet, we strongly recommend OpenOffice. It's free and it's highly functional. This led to a brief detour into the very old realm of WYSIWYG computing...from back in the day before word-processing programs always showed the user how the final product would look. Back then, users had to select the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) option to get a real preview.
The perpetual DSL-versus-cable debate came to our attention again. The short form is this: When cable is fast, it can be much faster than DSL. But DSL is dedicated to you and you alone, so it's always going to operate at roughly the same speed (unless there's some kind of bigger network problem at play). So when choosing between the two, it's important to consider how often you'll have access to cable's high speeds. If that's going to happen intermittently, or if you absolutely always need at least a certain level of speed available to you, then DSL may be the better option.
Dan's having some serious trouble with his tomatoes, thanks to wind and other weather. Should he give up and replant? We'll have to wait and find out.
Should a gaming enthusiast try a Mac or go for a gaming-dedicated computer like one from Alienware? As with everything, the costs and benefits must be weighed against one another. But if you're really going to go crazy with games, then a computer built specifically for the application is still probably the best way to go. Gaming usually taxes certain parts of the computer architecture more than normal day-to-day computing, so just like a NASCAR team uses different tires (and lots of other things) than commuters on I-235 do, so should hard-core gamers give full consideration to machines built for the purpose they intend.
It's starting to look like the cockpit data recorders from the Air France flight that crashed a few weeks ago may end up missing forever. This is a dual calamity: First, it means that the family members may never get that sense of closure that so many people seem to think comes with knowing how a disaster happened. But for the rest of us, it means that we don't have the opportunity to find out why the plane crashed. This is important, because the fact a crash happened tells us that some problem exists. But now we're hampered from finding out what that problem really is. Engineering is really just the deliberate and organized study of failure, and the avoidance of the things that caused failures in the past. One broken bridge tells us a lot more about what to avoid than a thousand fully-functional bridges tell us about what works right.
It turns out that monkeys may be able to recognize bad grammar. Intriguing, to say the least.