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Chromebook: The future of computing?

A chromebook

We purchased a couple of Chromebooks for use as demonstration machines at an exhibition in London last week, and being the curious sort I adopted one for a few days to test out the viability of running a Chromebook as a full time PC replacement.

It was a very interesting experiment that I’ll document over a couple of posts.

What is a Chromebook?

The Chromebook product category is a Google invention designed to support the search engine giant’s desire to displace Microsoft from the enterprise and business world by providing a viable alternative to Windows PCs and Microsoft Office with Google Apps and Chromebook hardware.

Like Xero, Google senses that just like the prior shifts from 1950’s mainframe computing to 1980′s PC based client server computing, the next big shift to cloud computing is now well underway. And while our existing hardware real estate is capable of straddling both worlds thanks to the browser, the typical PC form factor has a bunch of kit that’s effectively redundant in a cloud computing world – not least the dependencies required to support local file storage – both on-device storage like hard disks as well as the knock-on requirement this creates for local file server infrastructure, too.

So, the theory goes; if we’re increasingly moving towards a cloud computing world where we run apps like Xero in a browser, then why not wrap some computer hardware around just the browser itself and leave all the classic PC and local network baggage behind.

Therefore at its most simplistic level, a Chromebook is exactly that – a web browser with an attached screen and a keyboard.

Déjà vu, all over again

When you think about it though, as transitions go this is not actually as revolutionary a concept as you might imagine at first.

For the first half of its existence the Windows operating system was effectively an app (just like a web browser is today) that you installed and launched on top of the MS-DOS operating system, and it wasn’t really until Windows 95 that the final remnants of MS-DOS dependency effectively vanished and Windows 95 became self-standing operating system all on its own. And so with the Chromebook it’s like history repeating itself all over again, with the now ubiquitous web browser having existed for a similar amount of time as an app before ejecting its host operating system and going solo.

And just as Microsoft had to ensure that Windows provided legacy support for MS-DOS apps for years after Windows 95 launched, so too does the cloudy Chromebook retain a small amount of legacy support in the form of local storage – mine had 16GB of super fast flash storage – in recognition of the fact that Chromebook users will still require to collaborate with non-Chromebook users and swap files around, and also to support offline working because we don’t yet live in a world where internet connectivity is omnipresent.

Critics might naturally point to the presence of these legacy features as evidence that the world is not ready for a device like the Chromebook, but when viewed in the historical context it’s perfectly logical for them to be there to support the transition just like the legacy MS-DOS support in Windows. The Chromebook is a vehicle, not yet a destination.

From the outside a Chromebook looks pretty much like any regular notebook computer. I used the Samsung 3 series with its 11” screen, and as far as dimensions and weight go it’s almost a perfect plastic doppelganger for my 11” MacBook Air.

If the outside is all comfortably familiar then it’s when you open the lid and fire one up that you begin to notice the changes.

Of course, there needs to be a little more to a Chromebook than just an abstracted web browser app suspended conceptually in an operating system vacuum, so Chromebooks necessarily come with Google’s ChromeOS operating system to provide for practical things like setting up user accounts and a small number of control panel like options for changing your desktop wallpaper and configuring WiFi.

However, beyond fleeting glimpses of the ChromeOS chassis sitting behind the scenes, anyone who has used the Google Chrome web browser on a Windows PC or Mac will be instantly at home.

 

In the second part of this piece I’ll dig into my real world experiences of using a Chromebook; what’s good, what needs work and how I think it might have fundamentally changed the way I work with apps.

 

 

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7 comments

Irvin Jaffe
15 June 2013 #

My wife recently completely dumped her PC and now uses her Chromebox (desktop version of Chromebook) exclusively. It is, without question, my favorite computer in our house.

As a CPA, I try to operate solely in the cloud. One of the problems is that much of the “desk” software that I use is either 1) better on the desktop vs. the cloud version, or 2) not yet available in the cloud. For example, Xero, as good as it is, is inferior to Peachtree (in my opinion), there is no cloud equivalent for Quicken and its report generating possibilities, and a stong and high qualilty Acrobat equivalent is absent from the cloud.

The change is on the way, it’s just not here yet.

Graeme Leo
15 June 2013 #

@Irvin
A refreshingly honest comment. Cloud is absolutely a big part of the future and brings innovation and ease of connectivity that only web can deliver, but right now if you want depth and breadth, i.e. serious functionality, web apps, particularly for more specialised needs, have some ways to go yet. It isn’t an either/or world, its about what works smoothly and is productive for the task at hand.

Gary Turner
15 June 2013 #

@Irvin @Graeme In this transitional, shifting context the truth is that individual experiences of using a new product or technology are always bound to be somewhat subjective depending on one’s specific experiences and needs.

There’s a chunk of capability we’ve still got to build into Xero to bridge some of the gaps that older desktop apps bridged many years ago and there’s no escaping that – but as important some areas of functional parity or disparity are between desktop and cloud apps, there’s an ever growing pile of capability and value that will only be rendered from working in the cloud paradigm for which there exists no prior comparator in any classic desktop app.

Over time the retrospective functionality gaps will be progressively closed or rendered null and void, and new capabilities will continue to extend.

As the renowned Sci-Fi author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Mike Talks
15 June 2013 #

Great piece – looking forward to the next part. One thing I am interested in is how much internet you found it using – significantly more than a PC? A lot has been said about how unsuitable NZ might be for such a device as we are charged steeper rates for our internet than many other countries.

But it’s true – the cloud is changing the way we work and think. With dropbox, I find myself working on pieces all around the house, at work during my lunch, on the train. I almost giggle naively remembering “ah yeah, I used to move these files around with me on a flash drive tied around my neck”. Times change.

Gavin Bottrell
16 June 2013 #

The future in technology looks awesome!! New business will be able to understand their business in real time & grow quickly!

Gavin Bottrell
16 June 2013 #

The future in technology looks awesome!! New business will be able to understand their business in real time & grow quickly! !

Adam
17 June 2013 #

When discussing Chromebooks it’s important to keep in mind that they are not meant to replace laptops. They are not meant to be for every type of user. Like with many things in technology (as in life), not everything is meant for everyone.

Chromebooks are meant for users that spend most of their time in a browser and want a device that’s easy to use and starts up fast. Sounds to me like that profile fits quite a few people.

That being said, not everyone is willing or able to give up on their Windows applications. But there are solutions to overcome that obstacle. For example, Ericom AccessNow is an HTML5 RDP client that enables Chromebook users to securely connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server and VDI virtual desktops, and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

AccessNow does not require any client to be installed on the Chromebook, as you only need the HTML5-compatible browser.

Check out this link for more info:
http://www.ericom.com/RDPChromebook.asp?URL_ID=708

Please note that I work for Ericom

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