Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Chromebook Pixel and the Meaning of it All

I’m typing this on a Chromebook Pixel. It’s not mine. I borrowed it from my good friend Norman. To start out, I will say that the Pixel is a very nice piece of hardware. It’s extremely well made, has a beautiful display, a pleasing keyboard, and a wonderful touchpad. However, it costs 5 times as much as the new Samsung Chromebook and I’m not sure the Pixel is 5 times better. But even at it’s lofty price, the Pixel is tempting.

The Internet is the Computer

I don’t know the reason Google chose to introduce the Pixel when they did, but  as someone schooled in industrial design, I understand that it’s easier to make something that is expensive than to make something that is inexpensive. Google is just starting out as a hardware developer and a high-end product (especially a well-executed one like the Pixel) is a good start. But beyond that, the Pixel suggests Google has higher aspirations for the Chromebook concept.

Just what are those aspirations? While Chromebooks have been positioned as low-cost secondary computers, the Pixel goes beyond that. The Pixel is positioned for the future, a future where the Chromebook is your primary computer.

Twenty years ago, the late, great Sun Microsystems used the marketing slogan “The network is the computer.” It referred to the local area networking technologies first developed in the mid-1980s such as network file sharing and remote control of systems and applications. Today, Google and a few others are pushing the idea to the next level: The Internet is the computer.

In this brave new world, you don’t rely on the limited processing and storage capabilities of the computer in your hand. Instead you use a wide variety of computing resources available all over the world. The question is how.

More than "just a browser."

Apps are a Dead End

I have argued for some time that native apps on mobile devices are not the future. Today, a platform’s chances of survival are determined by the vitality of the app developers that support the platform. This requirement of “hundreds of thousands” of native apps, presents an unassailable barrier to entry; Just ask Microsoft and Blackberry as they struggle to gain any traction in the mobile market.

A few companies are looking at something different. Samsung, the world’s largest seller of Android devices, and the Linux Foundation are developing a new, Linux-based  mobile platform called Tizen, Canonical is introducing a new mobile version of the Ubuntu operating system, and Google has Chrome OS. All three of these platforms are going to rely in large part on web apps that execute in a web browser.

If you think back to how native apps came to dominate the landscape of mobile computing, you realize that they were necessary because the web browsing experience on phones and tablets was so weak. Many apps don’t really do much beside provide a pleasing user interface to a remote server. Most mobile devices still lack the horsepower to provide a satisfying web-based experience but that problem will soon be solved. When it is, we will see less reliance on native apps and more on web-based ones.

Why? Because it’s cheaper. Web apps are a more efficient use of development resources. Look at the amount of work needed to port an application to both Android and IOS, not to mention Blackberry and Windows Phone. Even porting an app from an old Apple device to a new one requires effort due to the fact that app developers on that platform have gotten into the nasty habit of hard coding their graphics to specific screen sizes on iPhones and iPads.

Soon, when mobile devices are fast enough and mobile browsers are good enough, we will see apps that are simply portable among all devices and platforms. Of course there will still be some native apps, but a platform won’t need hundreds of thousands of them to gain acceptance. Web apps will open the market to new platform competitors, and that’s a good thing.

More Apple than Apple

The Pixel is an interesting product. It’s a very nice object, very fast and extremely easy to use. As I have said before, Chromebooks are “the computer you can’t screw up” and the Pixel is no exception. It provides a web experience that is unmatched on any other laptop. For many consumers, Chromebooks are a good choice because they perform the task most consumers originally bought a computer for (web browsing) and yet free their owners from the chore of system administration, a job that most consumers are woefully unqualified to perform. The Pixel is clearly a luxury product intended for a luxury consumer, but part of that luxury is the luxury of ease of use and the quality of the user experience. An experience that only this premium Chromebook can provide.