Sunday, July 17, 2011

Google Chromebook: The Computer You Can't Screw Up

I’ve had my Samsung Chromebook for a couple of weeks now.  

A lot has been written about the Chromebook concept, so I won’t go into it in detail here, but in a nutshell, a Chromebook is a specialized small form-factor computing device that is designed to act as an Internet terminal which can rapidly connect the user to network-based services.  It provides a software platform for web-based “apps”  which can be as simple as links to web sites, or as complex as browser extensions using the scripting facilities provided by the Chrome web browser.

My editor has an iPad and I admire its mobility and, more importantly, feeling of immediacy.  A touch or two and you are ready to go.  I have a netbook (actually two) and a netbook is certainly mobile, but it’s still a full-blown computer and that is not always an advantage.

While I understand some of the appeal of the iPad (especially as a media consumption device), the one thing that I can’t understand is how people tolerate its miserable web browser.  Slow and incapable of multitasking, the iPad has the bulk of a computer while unable to perform any better than a smartphone.  To my mind, a Chromebook has many of the desirable attributes of iPad (mobility, immediacy, long battery life) without its limitations.

The tech pundits have weighted in on the Chromebook and I have been quite surprised by the number of negative opinions that this product has spawned.  I guess that I shouldn’t have been surprised given how many negative things were said about the iPad at its introduction.

They Are Missing The Point

Let’s look at the main criticisms being leveled at the Chromebook:

1. “They are too limited.”  The problem many people have is that Chromebooks look like laptops but they don’t do  as much.  Yes, they look like laptops, but they are not laptops.  It is better to look at them as iPads with an actual keyboard, a real web browser, and USB ports.  True, you can’t run Photoshop on a Chromebook, but you can’t run it on your phone either.

2. “They don’t have enough local storage.”  While 16 GB may not sound like a lot, I have noticed that on my netbooks (both of which have 16 GB SSD drives), I don’t store anything close to that much data locally.  I’m always transferring it to other larger machines (Hint: Ubuntu One is your friend).  Besides, unlike an iPad, you can attach USB mass storage devices to a Chromebook.  So, if you want to download that massive video collection, just whip out your 3 TB external drive and go for it.

3. “They are useless without an Internet connection.”  As far as I’m concerned, in this day and age all computers are useless without an Internet connection.  Don’t believe me?  Disconnect your network for a while and see how much you can really get done.  Check your email?  No.  Update your Facebook status or send a tweet?  Nope.  Post to your blog?  Nah.  Conduct research?  Go shopping?  Read the news?  Manage a remote server?  Forget it.

4. “They cost too much.”  For the same money you can get a “real” laptop or netbook,  but name a $430 laptop that will boot in 8 seconds and has 8 hours of battery life.  You also have to consider your definition of “cost.”  Sure, you could buy a lovely Windows 7 netbook for about the same price as a Chromebook, but then you would be confronted with what I call the “money pit of maintenance.”  How much time and money will you spend keeping that machine secured and maintained?  For businesses, the cost of support far exceeds that of the machine itself.  Google uses the slogan “Nothing But The Web,” but they should have called the Chromebook “The Computer You Can’t Screw Up.”   I consider this to be the killer feature of Chromebooks.  There is almost nothing to manage.  Imagine what a business spends maintaining its fleet of PCs each with its own copies of programs and local storage.  With Chromebooks (as with any kind of “thin client” computing model) administration becomes centralized and vastly simplified.  Yes, you may be vulnerable to a possible single-point-of-failure scenario, but I think that many businesses would find this to be an acceptable trade-off.  Oh, and did I mention that a Chromebook is at least $100 less expensive than an iPad.

5. “The Cloud is insecure/unreliable.”  I guess you haven’t suffered a hard drive failure lately, or  had your laptop stolen.  I don’t trust the cloud, but I don’t trust hard disks either.  That’s why I keep backups.

The Philosophical Issue

RIchard Stallman, as you may know, has come out strongly against cloud computing, the model that the Chrome OS so vigorously promotes.  He calls it “stupid” and “careless.”  I think that if you are careless and stupid with anything, you will likely get what you deserve, but I don’t see the cloud as intrinsically evil the way Mr. Stallman does.  I would point out that most free and open source software is developed in the cloud.  Likewise, I don’t see Chrome OS as particularly evil, any more than I see the firmware built into a terminal as particularly restrictive to my freedom.

Where freedom is endangered is with the software that the cloud sometimes provides.  Just like many kinds of proprietary software, cloud-based services have the potential for abuse, particularly by locking your data into a particular vendor’s service.  Also, many of the services provided by cloud vendors are closed-source violating the fundamental tenet of software freedom.

However the concept of cloud computing creates an opportunity for free software and personal liberty.  While the Chromebook demonstrates a certain bias towards Google services, it is not bound to them  You are free to use any cloud service of you want, including your own.

Chromebooks Seem Fine To Me

I, for one, am enjoying my Chromebook.  It fills my need for rapid, lightweight web access without having to support another computer in my “fleet.”