Polishing Chrome at Google I/O: Angry Birds, Cheap Payments & $20 Chromebooks

After hearing yesterday how Android is becoming a leading force in mobile devices, today at Google’s annual I/O developer conference, we’re expecting to hear how Google hopes to repeat its success in a more established realm: the Web. Google hopes to turn the Web into a mainstream platform for applications, and it’s betting heavily on several technologies to lead that transformation.

Chief among them is Chrome OS, Google’s bid to one-up Microsoft’s Windows as the prime platform for writing applications. But Google has been slow to roll out everything developers need to do this, so today’s the day most people expect to hear whether Google can put some flesh on Chrome OS bones. I’ll be liveblogging the keynote, which you can also watch here. And here’s the info page on all things Chrome announced today. Again, geek alert: A bit of this is pretty arcane for us average users, but most is pretty straightforward.

Vic Gundotra, VP of engineering, comes onstage to announce more I/O schwag: a Verizon SIM card for several months of free online access on the Samsung tablet Google also gave out to the conference’s 5,000 attendees yesterday. Now he introduces Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president in charge of Chrome. Some numbers to start: Google has more than doubled the number of its Chrome browser users to 160 million (just to be clear, since Google’s use of Chrome makes this perennially confusing: this is the Chrome browser, not the Chrome OS). Google has been releasing new versions every six weeks–now on Ver. 8.

Ian Ellison-Taylor, who is product management director for Google’s Open Web Platform, comes on to talk about new features and APIs, or application programming interfaces that developers use to build applications upon Chrome OS. One is speech, which he demonstrates using the TV search service Clicker: Basically, he adds the ability to use speech in Clicker. He says “Emma Caufield,” which brings up shows including Bandwagon, the one he wants. Now he’s doing a translation from English into Chinese: “Welcome to San Francisco,” gets translated instantly into Chinese–both text and voice. Actually pretty amazing–some people in the audience say it’s correct.

Making things fast has been a fundamental criterion for Chrome from the start. He shows a chart showing (vaguely) how Javascript speed has quickly and steadily climbed with each new Chrome version. Graphics too, but the explanation about CSS and sprites and such is getting a little geeky for me. So he shows an animation of fish in an aquarium that shows how fast it works.

Pichai’s back to talk about Chrome Web Store, the market for Chrome OS applications. 17 million applications installed so far. People spend twice as much time in an application when it’s installed from the Web Store. Now available in 41 languages for all 160 million users of the Chrome browser.

Now someone from the Google Payments team is talking about in-app payments. He demos using Graphicly Comics, a Chrome app that helps people find and buy graphic novels online. One click to bring up a purchase window, another click to complete it and start reading–nearly frictionless, he says. Just need single line of code in an app to do this. Now he criticizes companies that charge a 30% cut for facilitating purchases (hello, Facebook!). Google will charge only 5%–eliciting many cheers.

Next up: games. Peter Vesterbacka from Rovio, creator of the ridiculously popular iPhone game Angry Birds, comes on to explain how the company has developed an app to the Web. It hasn’t been possible until today, he says. (Expect U.S. productivity to drop a few more percentage points in coming weeks.) He also announces special exclusive levels in Angry Birds for Chrome–Chrome bombs, etc. (Means nothing to me, since I’ve managed to resist this game.) “We really love this 5%” payment model. “We’re all for lower taxes.”

Aaron Koblin from Google’s Creative Lab comes on to talk about some new possibilities for Web apps, in particular Three Dreams of Black, an interactive music experience. You move through dream worlds, with video, music, etc., with live rendering of images. An image of a buffalo turns into a tarantula. Eye candy, in other words.

Pichai is back to talk about Chrome notebooks, which Quentin Hardy at Forbes last night said would be offered to students for free plus $20 a month. Best of all, to my mind: They’ve revamped the trackpad on the Cr48 Chrome notebook Google gave to developers last year–the main reason I haven’t used it as much as I otherwise would. He calls them Chromebooks, which I think is a name Google hasn’t used before. Here’s the blog post on them.

Kan Liu from Google now talks about how you can plug in various devices, such as cameras, into the Chromebook, and can use various media types (music, video), which also was an issue with the first-generation Chrome notebooks. This is nothing amazing for notebook computers, so basically Google’s providing table stakes it should have had in the first place.

Now Pichai talks about another central shortcoming of cloud notebooks–the ability to work offline when you don’t have Web access. Actually, already hundreds of apps such as New York Times, Huffington Post, Angry Birds work offline. Offline access for Google apps such as Gmail and Google Docs will be available this summer–finally!

Wish he’d have more to say on that, but now he moves on to who will make the Chromebooks–Samsung for one, Acer for another, with a full-size keyboard with WiFi and 3G access. Priced $349 and up depending on 3G option. Available June 15 on Amazon.com and Best Buy, and in six more countries outside U.S. And they have full “jailbreaking” mode built in so developers can play around with various options.

Pichai says these Chromebooks will be available to businesses too, with a number of app management options, support, warranties etc.–for $28 per user per month. And with VMware and Citrix, enterprise applications can run on them as well. “We think this can fundamentally change the way people use computers in corporations.”

Now to the school Chromebook announcement: Chromebooks for education will indeed be $20 per user per month for schools and government institutions. These will be available directly from Google; more info here. “We think users are really ready for this.” In short, more chinks in Microsoft’s armor.

And yet more schwag: Every I/O attendee will get one of these Chromebooks, sometime in June. Google’s gotta spend all that cash somewhere, especially since Groupon and others won’t take its money.

And that’s it.

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