At Google's annual developer conference in downtown San Francisco there is a large, modern-looking yurt, inside of which a facsimile of the world plays on a loop. Several projectors spit a series of slowly panning images from Google's Street View service onto the inside of the structure's domed roof. Large speakers play appropriate sound effects to complement the visuals: a lapping tide for beach scenes, bustling traffic for cityscapes, and so on. All day, conference-goers wander in and out of Google's virtual tourism hut, and at any given time there are about a dozen people sitting on bean-bag chairs inside, looking up at projections of faraway places.
As a reality simulator, the yurt doesn't quite work, in part because the noise of the conference keeps leaking in from outside. But like so many of Google's experimental projects, it represents a very rough draft of the future as the world's most powerful search engine envisions it. Ten, 20 years from now, maybe everyone has a Projection Yurt.
The list of Google's crystal-ball projects is long, and includes the audacious (self-driving cars), the useful (ultra-fast Internet connections) and the socially inadvisable (Google Glass). But perhaps the most practical and consumer-ready of these projects is the Chromebook, Google's cloud laptop. The Chromebook, for those who have never used one, is computer built almost exclusively on the back of a Web browser. It assumes everything you do with it will take place on the Internet. Instead of installing software, you download apps; instead of saving to the hard drive, you save to the cloud. Lose your Internet connection, and the Chromebook loses most of its functionality. In Google's vision of the future, where Web access is as ubiquitous as oxygen access and there's no such thing as an unconnected device, the Chromebook makes perfect sense.
This week, Google gave away its highest-end laptop, the Chromebook Pixel, to everyone attending its annual conference. Released in late February of this year, the Pixel normally runs about $1,300. That price tag pushes Google's laptop into MacBook Pro territory, and is even more astounding given that the first Chromebooks were no-frills machines priced at less than 300 bucks. And because all you get in the way of local storage with the Pixel is a measly 32 gigabytes that Google would really rather you not use at all, the company had to come up with something else to justify the high-roller price.
What Google did, primarily, is give the Pixel the most gorgeous screen I've ever seen on any piece of consumer electronics. They also threw in some other stuff, but my God, what a screen.
In 13 inches of display space, the Pixel packs 4.3-million pixels. For comparison, the Retina-display iPad boasts 3.1-million pixels. There's no doubt that this is a case of throwing a jet engine in a lawnmower (and, to be fair, I recently blasted smartphone manufacturers for doing the same thing with cameras and megapixels). But the result is a screen so sharp that even high-definition video is sort of wasted on it. As such, Google has pre-installed something called TimeScapes on the Pixel. TimeScapes is basically just insanely high-resolution video of beautiful places, included on the laptop for no other reason than to show off its capabilities – a gorgeous salt flat on which to red-line your jet-powered lawnmower.
The screen is also multitouch-sensitive, although a perfectly useable touchpad and your constant fear of smudging the visual surface with your fingers will probably keep you from using it.
Google has opted for minimalism throughout the Pixel's design – and for the most part, it works. A thin line of pulsing backlight on the top cover is the only overt aesthetic touch on what is otherwise just two machine-smoothed aluminum blocks joined by a piano hinge. Open the laptop, and you'll see a keyboard made up of flat black squares. The keys are widely spaced, so much so that it takes some getting used to. In Google's vision of the future, nobody leaves angry comments on the Internet anymore, so the company ditched the Caps Lock key. In its place is a universal search button that lets the user look for anything on the computer or the web. A row of keys along the top of the keyboard gives you easy access to common browser functions and settings such as volume, contrast and refresh.
The minimalist theme extends to the Chrome operating system itself. Almost all the desktop real estate is taken up by a high-resolution background photo of your choosing. In the bottom right corner of the screen sit the system functions, including time, connectivity and battery settings (battery life is not great, given all those power-hungry pixels. Google estimates five hours of life with normal usage. I got about four). Your applications take up the bottom left corner. The equivalent of the Windows Start button here is the Chrome icon, which launches the browser. In fact, almost any app you click on will launch the browser. That's because the browser is basically the computer.
The first things Google asks you to do when you power up the Pixel for the first time is log on to an Internet connection and sign in to your Google account. If you don't have an Internet connection or a Google account, the list of things you can actually do with a Chromebook shrinks significantly. Some apps, such as the scratchpad, let you work in offline mode until you hop back online and everything gets synced with your Internet storage. Most apps, however, will refuse to come out of their trailers until you get them some Internet. Keep this in mind if you plan to use your Chromebook in the many parts of this planet where access to cheap, fast Internet isn't a certainty.
But if you do have high-speed web access, the Chromebook shines. The dual-core, 1.8-gigahertz processor isn't all that impressive on its own. But because the laptop's arteries don't get clogged up with all the files, software and exotic trojans people normally store on their hard drives, the Chromebook feels fast all the time.
Google goes to great lengths to make Pixel owners comfortable with the idea of being online all the time. The laptop comes with a whopping one-terabyte locker on Google Drive, the company's cloud storage service. The space is free for three years with purchase of a Pixel. This is a pretty smart promotion because, at the end of those three years, you'll probably have so much stuff stored in your Drive locker that you'll inevitably pay up to keep using the service.
Every year, the idea behind the Chromebook seems less ridiculous. Surely there are plenty of people who live their entire lives on the web, and have no need for locally installed software or locally saved files. Extrapolating, it's easy to see the Chromebook model becoming the norm one day.
But the Pixel's problem isn't the core vision of an always-connected user. The problem is that the Chrome operating system isn't yet a good enough substitute for something like Windows. Is Windows a hot mess? Yes it is. Will it crash way more often than Chrome? Yes it will. But power users still can't replicate the usefulness of a customized Windows or Mac machine by downloading a whole bunch of apps from Google's online store and running them off a browser.
In addition, Pixel also suffers from conflicting personalities. Most of the Chromebook's defining features – including the app store and cloud storage – are just as accessible on the low-end, $300 laptop as they are on the high-end one. So why pay a grand more for a Pixel? The screen resolution might be the best on any device right now, but that's not quite enough of a reason. As a piece of hardware, the Pixel is impressive and beautifully designed. As a consumer product, it doesn't quite make sense yet.
Technology companies have a habit of building grand, utopian visions of the future that just happen to rely heavily on whatever segment of the market those companies already dominate. If you're Facebook, you imagine a world where everything is social and everyone knows what everyone else likes. If you're Google, you imagine everyone and everything being online all the time. If you're Apple, you imagine people continuing to buy iPhones and iPads forever.
Mostly, these predictions are self-serving and probably most of them won't come true. But if Google's vision wins out, one day all computers will look like Chromebooks.