Maker of Chromebook Pixel video: It's real. But is he?

Exclusive: Slinky.me founder Victor Koch says his company's Chromebook video is legit -- but doubts about him are mounting.

The light bar from the Chromebook Pixel video.
The light bar from the Chromebook Pixel video. YouTube

The Chromebook Pixel is real, according to the man behind the promotional video that leaked last week -- and, he told CNET in an exclusive interview, "it's going to be fantastic."

But contrary to Victor Koch's claims on various social media profiles, Google says it is unaware of him ever working for the company, throwing new doubt on his story.

Koch, the 25-year-old co-founder and CEO of Slinky.me, denied that the video was part of a hoax and said the Pixel was a device worth waiting for.

"No fake, no hoax," he said in a phone interview from China, where he has gone as part of an investigation into the hacking of his company's servers . "I think it will be huge -- huge in the international market, not in the United States. It's going to be fantastic."

Koch spoke in excited tones about the device, though he declined to discuss the Pixel in detail. Nor would he discuss his company at any length, saying that much of its work remained secret and that it would have more to share "in the next four to seven weeks."

Meanwhile, questions continue to swirl around the Pixel video's creation and release -- and about the true nature of the connection between Slinky and Google.

Reasons to believe
On Wednesday, what appeared to be a promotional video for a new touch-enabled Chromebook surfaced online. The Chromebook Pixel, as it is called in the video, would represent the first laptop designed by Google since the CR-48 Chromebook that the company built to demonstrate Chrome OS. The video depicts a high-resolution touch screen built inside a device that resembles the MacBook.

The video arrived following rumors that Google planned to launch a Chromebook with a 12.85-inch, touch-screen display. Slinky.me, which took credit for the video, said in a note on its Web site that it leaked after the company's servers were hacked. Chrome developer Francois Beaufort posted the video on Google+, and from there it quickly found its way onto most major tech sites.

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Developers have noted changes to pre-release versions of Chrome OS suggesting the Pixel could be real. Beaufort found a reference to a light bar, similar to one seen in the video, that flashes the four Google colors and changes them to red or blue depending on the laptop's remaining battery life. References have also been found to higher-resolution images in Chrome OS, and Chromebookpixel.com was registered in October by MarkMonitor, a service Google has previously used for domain registration. Android Authority found other clues, including a new device showing up in Chromium tests code-named "puppy" and running on the powerful new Nvidia Tegra 4 processor.

Almost immediately, though, the circumstances around the video's creation and release came under suspicion. For starters: Slinky's Web site, written in broken English, advertises a bewildering array of products. The company's stated mission is to "build the world's largest visual guide," and its core offering is a kind of visual take on Wikipedia. (It runs only in the browser, making it the rare company to be founded after 2010 not to have released a mobile app.) Search "sock puppet," for example, and Slinky shows instructions for making one, along with step-by-step photos. The company has also released 10 themes for Web browsers, which collectively have been installed more than half a million times. And its first product, according to its page on the database Startuply, was called "Slinky Plus" -- which, the page claims, eventually became the official Google+ app. (A Google+ spokesman said the company had no record of ever working with a company called Slinky.)

At the same time, the company also produced videos advertising Google products. Some appear to be fan art, as noted by JR Raphael at Computerworld -- or, perhaps, a response to a request for proposals from Google's advertising team. Of the Slinky videos still online, the Pixel ad is the most polished by far.

Koch says both he and co-founder Benjamin Pleuger worked at Google before moving on to Slinky, which could help to explain the link between the companies. Still: a 2-year-old company, with no known investors, simultaneously tackling crowd-sourced how-to pages, Chrome themes, video advertisements, and mobile application development?

If true, Slinky is like no other startup on earth.

A brief history of Slinky
Slinky's chronology is as twisty as its namesake toy, full of inconsistencies and question marks. But a trail of dates listed on various Web sites gives a rough overview of its history.

Victor Koch
Victor Koch CrunchBase

The company was founded in December 2010, according to CrunchBase, a crowd-sourced wiki. In February 2011, Koch says he began working at Google, according to his LinkedIn profile. He registered the Slinky.me domain just three months later, on May 10. According to a Facebook profile, Koch didn't leave Google until 2012.

But Google says it is unaware of Koch having worked for the company. In a brief follow-up interview, asked whether he really had worked for Google, Koch exclaimed "Oh gosh!" and said a bad phone connection prevented him from hearing the question. He invited follow-up questions via e-mail, and CNET will update this post when he responds.

Update, 4 p.m. PT: Koch called back to say the LinkedIn account is fake and that the CrunchBase profile contains misinformation. He said his Facebook page says he worked at Google only because he created browser extensions for them as a third-party developer. He hung up before CNET could ask follow-up questions, though his answers appeared to contradict his earlier answers, when he said his work at Google had been "a secret."

In any case: by September 2010, Slinky's Web site was up and running, according to the Internet Archive. Today, the company says 2.6 million people use its products daily, including 750,000 that use its browser themes for Chrome, Opera, and Firefox. The company also says "320 media magazines are our customers," without elaborating. Given the company's collection of user-generated how-to content, though, it's conceivable that some outlets license Slinky pages for publication.

In fact, Koch's CrunchBase page says he signed a $5 million deal with AOL in 2011, though he doesn't describe the partnership in detail. AOL has not responded to a request for comment on whether such a deal took place.

The man in the middle
Sitting at the center of the mystery is Koch, a Russian-born computer scientist now living in Mountain View, Calif. He says he studied cybernetics and computer science in Moscow until 2010, when he co-founded Slinky. In 2011, he says, he was among the top 100 finalists in Facebook's annual Hacker Cup competition. (Facebook has yet to verify this information.)

Koch declined to discuss his alleged stint at Google -- "it's a secret," he said -- though his Facebook profile says he worked on browser extensions and Chrome. It makes no mention of Google+.

Koch's online bios make some grandiose claims, phrased in an eclectic English similar to language he used during the interview. On CrunchBase, where people can submit their own biographies, Koch is described as "one of the most successful young entrepreneurs in online businesses." It adds: "In 2011 joined the list of the richest promising entrepreneurs." The bio also says Koch is an investor in companies including "Mapep," "ScooPas," and "Bein," which CNET was unable to locate online.

Koch said his world was turned upside-down last week when Slinky's servers around the world were hacked and its videos leaked. He traveled to China to investigate the source of the attack, he said, and was still struggling to understand the improbable turn of events.

"It's like cinema," he said.

Koch declined to say why Chinese hackers -- who were very much in the news at the time of Slinky's announcement that it, too, was a victim -- might have targeted his company. But he said he had some idea.

In the wake of the attack, Koch posted an apology on Google+, tagging Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Skeptics questioned whether a company trusted with such an important project would write about it in public following a breach, rather than handling it privately. Koch decried those skeptics, though, saying he wanted to publicize the actions of the hackers.

"We publish it because it's very important for our team and for Google's team," he said, "But not for bad journalism and bad bloggers who just try to cheat and fake other information."

Koch declined to answer several other questions about Slinky's origins, background, and connection to Google. But he said Google had hired Slinky to produce videos about Chrome, Maps, and other products.

Other answers will come in time, he said. In the meantime he had an investigation to attend to.

"This is a strange position," he said, in perhaps the lone statement about the past week about which everyone can agree.

 

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