Do you want to marry Google, as a computing partner that is? If you do, the new Chromebook might make sense. If not, don’t even think about buying one when they go on sale in a few weeks.
A Chromebook is sort of a netbook based on Google’s Chrome operating system. Like any laptop-like device, it has a screen, a keyboard and a trackpad. But that’s where the similarities to the laptops or netbooks you’ve seen end.
The Chromebook could be named the Cloudbook, because it’s designed to work exclusively online, with storage and applications on Google’s servers in the cloud. Indeed, it has no local storage (unless you count a small solid state drive used to cache work in progress), no optical drives and few connectors for peripherals.
Because the Chromebook has a small operating system, and few, if any, drivers to load, it boots in less than 10 seconds and wakes up almost immediately if you’ve put it to sleep. And like a netbook, the first two commercial versions of the Chromebook are light (between three and four pounds), claim excellent battery life—six to eight hours— and are priced well below $500.
But a Chromebook is not just another small laptop. It’s a whole different way to go about your daily computing chores.
Want to work offline, on an airplane, for example, or when the Internet isn’t accessible for other reasons? You can’t. As Scott MeNeely said famously and prematurely some years ago, “The network is the computer.” It wasn’t true then, but if you’re a Chromebook user, it is.
You do pretty much everything from the built in Chrome browser. When you turn on the machine, you log into your Google account, and all of your Google stuff, gmail, docs, Google apps, calendar, contacts, and so on, are right there.
Being cloud-based as some significant advantages—and some potentially deal-breaking disadvantages.
On the positive side, most of the apps you’ll use are free. No more spending hundreds of dollars on software from Microsoft, Adobe and Symantec. That’s right; no Symantec or anybody else’s anti-virus software. Since all of your data and applications are in the cloud, security happens on the server level, not on your device.
Similarly, if you lose your Chromebook, you haven’t lost your stuff. It’s all right where you left it, ready to be accessed from another Chromebook or any other computing device you might own.
Not having lots of local applications means that support costs for business are likely going to be much lower than they are in conventional environments. Backups, for example, won’t be needed, since users will store their stuff in the cloud.
It’s worth mentioning that pre-release versions of the Chromebook tested by quite a few writers, including me, lacked any way to do things like upload photos or manage files on a storage device. I don’t know if Google had always intended to add those functions, or if the criticism the product received prompted the change, but those holes have been filled.
Chromebooks you’ll see for sale will have slots for card readers, support for things like USB drives, and a basic file system and will allow you to connect to the Web via 3G or Wi-Fi.
The Downsides of Chromebook
Want to print? Unless you have one of the few printers that allow you to print directly from a document in the cloud, you’ve got to set up Google’s cloud printer (a Web application) on both your Chromebook and conventional PC and then print on the printer hooked up to your computer—a process that feels roundabout and kind of crazy.
Say you want to write something, or crunch numbers in a spreadsheet. Using your familiar Microsoft Office tools is completely out of the question. Instead you’d be forced to rely on Google docs, or another cloud based productivity suite like Zoho. Using those cloud apps works for relatively simple jobs, but they simply lack the breath and sophistication of Office, or its open-source cousin, Open Office.
To be fair, there are many applications out there that run inside a browser. But it will be quite a while until cloud-only users have the same rich applications that run today on PCs and Macs.
Not worrying about traditional security threats like viruses doesn’t mean there are no security problems for Chromebook users. If you were a victim of a phishing attack and the hacker was able to trick you into logging into a bogus page, you would have given away access to everything you store on Google’s servers. And if you followed the tale of the attack on Sony’s PlayStation networks, you know that the cloud isn’t necessarily secure.
Should You Buy One?
The first Chromebooks are coming to market on June 15, courtesy of Acer and Samsung. Should you buy one? As always, the answer depends on what you need to do and how much you’re comfortable spending.
It seems fairly clear that the Chromebook in its early iterations is not going to be the primary computing device for most buyers. There’s too much you can’t do if the browser is your environment, and not being able to work offline is a huge problem.
But if you’d like a device to complement your PC or Mac, a Chromebook could make sense. After all, they’re affordable, light and well-suited for browsing the Web and taking care of email. They’re cheaper than most tablets and competitive in price with many netbooks.
If you’re running a small business, some employees may not need do things beyond the capabilities of a Chromebook. A receptionist, for example, might not need much more than access to email, group calendars and the Internet plus the ability to do some basic word processing chores.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.