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The Edge of the Picture: The Frame and The Chrome


The framing of a question serves to limit the field of response. A conceptual framework defines a set of tools for construction and analysis. The frame of a picture defines the edges, the boundaries of a particular vision. When we think about computers, operating systems, executable applications, and networking capability we’re looking at an industrial production infrastructure that defines the possibilities of a product set. The capability to connect to the Network was a late addition to a mature product.

The personal computer revolution allowed each person to have a computer of her own. The model of time sharing on a mainframe had created a scarce resource. The personal computer meant sharing was no longer an issue. One of the keys to the growth of the personal computer was that each computer also had the capacity to create new software. The system used by developers and end users was essentially the same. It was both a reading and a writing machine.

If you were to purchase a computer today that was unable to connect to the Network, you would consider it fundamentally broken. For many, using a computer is browsing web pages. The concept and economics of what a web page is has largely been determined by what Content Management Systems can build and what Web Analytics packages can measure.

While large economies have been built up around these particular frames, there’s nothing in the actual human-computer interaction or the underlying protocols that point to its necessity. If you were to pluck out the real human transactions that flow across these systems and networks, and then set out to build a supporting hardware and software infrastructure, you would end up in a very different place. The original personal computer was a solution to a specific set of problems in that environment. Here we may ask, what is our current environment and what solutions does it suggest?

In 1984, John Gage said, “The Network is the computer.” Google’s Chrome OS, Browser and HTML5 are a conceptual framework for the environment described by Gage’s phrase. And as we look at this adjustment to the frame, we no longer ask what is the computer capable of; instead we ask, what is the Network capable of. All of the players are positioning themselves to work within this new frame. The announcement of the Chrome OS is the pivot point, figure and ground have reversed.

There’s a wonderful story about a conversation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Elizabeth Anscombe. She says to Wittgenstein that she can understand why people thought the sun revolved around the earth. Puzzled, Wittgenstein asks why. Anscombe replies, “Well, it looks that way.” Wittgenstein pauses for a moment, and then says: “…and how would it look if the earth revolved around the sun?”

Published in digital hci innovation network