Most Read Columns of 2013: Learning to Love Chromebooks and Succeeding

Steve Wildstrom / December 27th, 2013

I have been a skeptic about Chromebooks since Google announced them. What could you really do on a pseudo-laptop whose only native application was the Chrome browser and which depended on an internet connection for most of its functionality. But I avoided sharing my opinion because I had never used on for more than a few minutes.

Now I have remedied that situation and you can count me as a convert. For the past cuple of weeks I have been spending a lot of time with a Chromebook. Not the drool-worthy $1,299 Google Pixel but a humble $250 Acer c710 with an 11.6” non-touch display, 4 GB of RAM, a 1.1 GHz dual-core Intel Celeron, and an almost pathetically old-fashioned rotating hard drive.

A Chromebook is far more restricted than a regular laptop of even a tablet. Without the ability to load standard applications, you must make do with web apps, which are limited both in scope and in functionality. But it is a good 80% or 90% solution, perfectly acceptable for the great bulk of what most people want to do most of the time. The applications and the operating system are both lightweight, so that performance feels snappy despite the modest specs.

Most important for those of use who live in a world where we are disconnected at least some of the time, the key Google apps, especially Docs, work offline. A Gmail add-on, officially still in beta testing, lets you read, edit, and reply to email messages offline.

The Chromebook is very good at what it does well, and for a large number of people, it would be a more than adequate replacement for a conventional PC.

I wrote this post mostly on the Chromebook, much of the time offline. The WordPress editor is not offline-friendly, so I composed in Google Docs, then copied and pasted into WordPress. The image was downloaded from the Web, saved as a local copy, and uploaded to WordPress. In terms of the apps I used, the experience was much like working on an iPad (or an Android tablet) except for the convenience, for writing, of working on a laptop form factor.

I used the image I found as-is. Chrome features a very limited built-in picture editor. Anything more sophisticated would have required using one of a number of on-line picture editors, such as Pixlr. Though it requires a live internet connection, it’s fine for occasional use and designed to be familiar to a Photoshop user. (Oddly, Google does not offer a Chrome version of its own Picasa photo tool.)

But I would n’t want to use the Chromebook to process a large number of images from my camera. It can’t handle the RAW format I like to use on by DSLR and there is nothing–at least that I know of–like Adobe Lightroom for batch processing of photos. And even with a fast internet connection, moving a large number of multi-megabyte photos to and from web servers will get tired quickly.

Similarly, I really wouldn’t want to do much audio or video editing on the Chromebook. I have too much invested in my familiar tools (Apple FinalCut and Adobe Audition) for these complicated chores, and any complicated video editing would be a tedious chore on the low-powered C710.

But this is all a little like complaining that a good bicycle isn’t a Lexus. A Chromebook cannot do everything that a Windows PC or a Mac (of even a Linux PC) can do. It can’t even do everything that a tablet can do. For one thing, the selection of games is very limited though there is, of course, Angry Birds. But it is very good at it does well, and for a large number of people, it would be a more than adequate replacement for a conventional PC.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • klahanas

    Should they catch on, I’m waiting for the “Chromebooks are PC’s” claims.

    • steve_wildstrom

      OK, Chromebooks are PCs. Yes they are limited to a browser and a narrow set of offline apps, but they functions in many ways like the PCs whose form factor they share and, more important, for many people they can do the work of traditional PCs.

    • jfutral

      What makes this ironic is the whole how we got to a PC thing to begin with.

      Joe

      • klahanas

        The reason it comes up is because it’s part of the overall computing landscape, which is going through a shift. There are very strong influences on redefining the next generation of computing, which won’t necessarily serve the user’s interests.

        You see, the PC gave the user too much autonomy and too much power in the eyes of the various providers-both hardware and software. These new devices, wonderful as they are, are consolidating that power back to the providers. The only reason I care, is that the option of user autonomy remains open.

        In this particular case, Chomebooks, is a complete return to mainframe computing.

        • steve_wildstrom

          I understand that for you, autonomy is the most important good. That’s fine for you, but it isn’t the case for the vast majority of technology users, who would probably list usability–or whatever they choose to call it–as their top requirement. If you are the sort of computer user whose activities consist primarily of web browsing of one sort or another–including services such as Facebook and Twitter–email, and occasionally writing a letter or other fairly simple document, a Chromebook may suit you perfectly. Its limitations do not matter if what it can do suits your needs.

          Another key point is that no one form factor or operating system is going to win. I do a lot of fairly complex things that require the power of a full-fledged PC much of the time, though I am also a heavy user of an iMac and smartphones (and occasionally a Chromebook.) Most others only need one or another of these tools, all of which are going to survive and even flourish.

          I also own a radial-arm saw, a Skilsaw, a scroll saw, and several handsaws, as well as screwdrivers ranging from a #00 Phillips to a gigantic flat blade. Different tools for different needs.

          The mainframe comparison, by the way, is just sillly. My first computer was an IBM 7090 and later a System/360. If you were lucky enough to have packaged software that met your needs so you didn’t have to do your own programming, you could choose from the reports it gave you. Getting a custom report was a major production, Now how is that like a Chromebook.

          I get your passion for independence from anyone restricting your choices in any way. But if you want to analyze markets, it is important that you recognize that this is an abstract ideal shared, or regarded as particularly important, by very few people.

          • klahanas

            I’m honored by your reply (no sarcasm intended). I appreciate it. If I come across as absolute, it’s entirely my fault. Let me clarify what I’m absolute about.

            Simplicity or rigor are not mutually exclusive. I see them as training and education. Related, but distinct. I see them as two modes if you will. Where I am absolute, is that I retain the right to stray from the “normal mode”, because it’s those very deviations that make the device “personal”. I haven’t written a line of code in a decade, but I don’t relinquish my right to do so. Even more importantly, for other’s to do so, with the law being the only restriction.

            Where we do agree is that not everyone (most) don’t need/want/care about, having a PC. It’s not they, however, that should want/need/care about defining what a PC is.

            The mainframe paradigm is easily explained. If you prefer, the net-top paradigm or client/server paradigm are also closely related. The OS is provided by a server and cached locally on a device. Updated by the server, at the server’s discretion. Same for applications. That’s exactly the mainframe model. The value added is the local caching.

            I understand you position as market analysts. Analyze the facts before us. You are also excellent industry reporters, as such you are influencers. You should not limit yourselves, as influencers, as to “what is”, but also as to “what was” and to “what can be”. I respectfully disagree with passively watching the baby being thrown out with the wash water.

    • Bill Smith

      Seems to me that Chromebooks have not yet crossed the uncanny valley. What can a Chromebook do BETTER than a laptop/tablet/desktop/phone? They’re really good at a lot of stuff, but where does it gel? What’s the killer app?

      There are many things that a tablet does better than a PC; there are other things that a desktop does better than a laptop. Unless a Chromebook can provide significantly better battery life, better security, more useful form factors or at least a “killer app”, it’s just a very restricted laptop.

      Now, there are advantages to having a laptop with limited capabilities from business and enterprise perspectives, but consumers generally expect something on the other side of that trade-off. Perhaps it will be mostly price and reliability.

      If something like the C710 Steve mentions were to sell for $99-$150, it’s easy to see a market opening up for Chromebooks. It would be a dirt cheap laptop, with low maintenance costs and a physical keyboard,

      At $200 from Wal-Mart, a $400 iPad Mini remains a bargain, by a long shot. Better ecosystem, 64-bit processor with considerably more oomph and graphics performance, touch, more than 3x the battery life, lighter, ⅓rd the weight, higher resolution,

      Also, don’t discount knowledge transfer. If I’m a Chromebook expert, that doesn’t automatically make me an iOS/Windows/Linux/OS X expert.

      Yet, if the price goes to $99 in early 2014, for a quality keyboard and display, think of what happens to modern Windows and Linux, both of which do not have a strong consumer hold at the moment. Companies would surely push toward Chromebooks + Amazon Workspaces (see http://aws.amazon.com/workspaces/details/ ). Linux on the desktop would be sent reeling; Windows 8.2 might never see the light of day. OS X *might* be able to hang on as the power-user platform, but would surrender significant turf to Chromebooks. Smartphones and tablets would still have a unique value proposition, but traditional laptops and desktops would be eviscerated, as everything else becomes a niche market. Apple knows how to play the “premium” game, but others would suffer unless the masses or corporations rejected such a mainframe-and-terminal architecture for IP ownership or privacy/security concerns.

      Apologies for “typing out loud”, but Steve’s article has set me to wonder if a $99 Chromebook is the major disruption that kills Windows and the Linux desktop, rather than tablets…I think I need to go lie down for a minute…

      • klahanas

        “others would suffer unless the masses or corporations rejected such a mainframe-and-terminal architecture for IP ownership or privacy/security concerns.”

        Agreed. On one hand, it would be difficult to get annoyed at the lack of capability of a $99 device. The expectation just isn’t there. That’s why my archaic Frankin Planner doesn’t annoy me (And no! It’s not a PC!) :-). If that $99 device is just a portal to a much more capable system, under the control of another party, selling us services, we would then be married to that third party. We would have to play by it’s rules, and divorce will be extremely expensive. Basically, we would be at their mercy. Not a good position to be in.

        It was bad enough when MS had control, but it was not to this level of granularity. To this level of micromanagement. There was (and is) still independence within the ecosystem (warts and all). If you want to call Windows a “walled garden” as well, the walls were much farther apart, and there were no imposed rules. Heck, want to install or develop an alternate OS, you could. On the same hardware. Hence Linux.

        Part of the liberating things of affordable computers is that you can own them. It the past, I may not have owned MS Office, but I did own my physical copy for eternity. Same for 99% of all other software. Upgrades are needed for bug fixes if nothing else. Under the services model, your only as good as your last payment, or for as long as the provider chooses to provide that service.

        Look at recent news about Vdio, which is being discontinued. Customers are being provided refunds for media which they “purchased” but they could no longer use the media. It’s gone. How would you feel if the store from where you purchased a disk, snuck into your house, took the disk, and left money in it’s place? This could very easily happen with computer services in principle. Taken to an hypothetical extreme, as you become more vested in stuff you don’t physically own, the more vulnerable you become to the provider. “Leasing” could easily turn into ransomware.

        • Bill Smith

          Good points, but you must note that ‘the masses’ don’t think about where events will lead, and ‘the corporations’ are always focused on short-term profits.

          Dare I say that it’s up to analyst/journalists like Messieurs Wildstrom and Bajarin to point out such things, while their audiences must take responsibility for guiding the future.

          A $99 throw-away Chromebook would make many objections disappear, and would be disruptive across multiple industries. The first sign of trouble would be if corporations begin distributing them to their workforces en masse, with a pre-installed VDI client. (It’s interesting that Google doesn’t have a VDI-virtual desktop play, but has the most to gain. Will Amazon make a Chromebook or something similar? How might Amazon’s Silk technology integrate with VDI?)

          As for owning an archival copy of your digital media, I agree that it’s comforting, but I worry more about the platform being subsumed. Chromebooks, like their VT52 predecessors offer low-cost and low-maintenance in trade for higher latency (this is key) and lack of local control.

          This may not be a milestone, but it’s definitely a waypoint with grave implications.

          • klahanas

            Love the dialogue. Thanks.

            Couldn’t agree more on the “waypoint with grave implications”. But you know what? “The masses” shouldn’t have to care. The intimate participants should be taking care of this and watching. Closely! This would include users such as the readers of this publication, analyst/journalists, etc. If we don’t at least attempt to keep these issues at the forefront, they will come back to bite “the masses”. You and I do have other options, but as a greedy user, I want the most options I can get.

            Btw, I’m not only referring to archival copy of media (actually, it’s a current legal gray area), it was the intrusion of undoing a transaction, without notice or recourse. I’ll be buying Blu-Rays and CD’s for a while…

          • Bill Smith

            @klahanas:disqus I greatly appreciate your contribution to this forum; I’m amazed at how many incredible commenters we have here on TechPinions. Such a treasure considering that most forums would have decayed into flame wars and enlargement ads by now. TechPinions feels more like an online think tank than a newsletter with comments.

            When a savant like Mr. Wildstrom feels that Chromebooks are coming of age, I take notice.

            Now, permit me to get in a long, meandering rant before the end of the year…

            How we compute is changing rapidly, but not in the ways we originally expected. The Chromebook is not a PC; as with tablets and smartphones, the value proposition is not realized until you stop trying to limit the possibilities to the familiar. I’ve spotted latency, security and privacy as the unanswered questions for Chromebooks. While I agree with you that this could take us down a dangerous path, toward corporate-sponsored and owned computing, I’m also trying to determine how this might play out. Are there solutions on the horizon for those three issues? Will “the masses” care?

            This is somewhat reminiscent of Java, which threatened modern software development by runaway abstraction. My fear for Java was that many great minds would end up lacking the concepts to create competitive platforms. “Web developers” pose a similar problem. There’s such a high wall of abstraction between HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript and the skills required to build a platform like the web that we make new and different technologies difficult to acquire. We are fortunate that “native applications” have been a focus recently, but Chromebooks can easily push us back into blinders, a view of what can be done in a web browser rather than “what can be done.”

            We need talent that can develop new forms of infrastructure, not just iterate on decisions made long ago. We lost a generation of talent pursuing the dream of “write once; run anywhere”, which has shown itself to be “regurgitate slow, uninspired code while stripping most of our talent’s ability to do something better.”

            If Chromebooks “win”, think of how much more difficult it will be for someone to innovate something radically better, unless they’re already part of the inner circle. It’s an Orwellian principle that it’s difficult to think what you do not have the ability to express. This one technology, added to the “cloud” concept has the ability to regress us to the mainframe era.

            We need a new Apple, and a new “1984” commercial. Interesting. The push of companies toward short-term profit and uniformity prefers the “mainframe” model rather than diverse pockets of individuality and excellence. It’s as if we either reach escape velocity with our radical concepts or, through conservation of energy, get pulled back into the same model. It’s almost prophetic.

            I think I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who during the holiday…

          • klahanas

            I see you’ve truncated you comment since the notification email I received. I agree with you on the “full version”.
            Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year.

          • Bill Smith

            Sorry. Once in a while I realize I’m saying something that one of my clients wouldn’t appreciate. Biting the hand that feeds you is a sure way to ruin.

            But yes, with deeper reflection, many parties are motivated to wrest the “personal” out of personal computing, and dirt cheap Chromebooks could convince many to ignore (or never detect) certain ulterior motives. It takes wisdom to forego short-term financial gain for long-term growth. That’s not what our economic system is designed for. Even a megalith like Apple can be forced to kowtow to those who aren’t playing the long game. I’m sure you understand that things are often more complicated/malevolent than they first appear.

            This is likely to be quite a year; I look forward to hearing your comments throughout it.

            Happy New Year!

      • CLM3Chip

        Tablets’ and smartphones’ value proposition will decrease too once chromepads and chromephones are introduced and they undercut premium cost (i.e. iOS) devices while offering comparable performance.

        The only reason we haven’t seen chromepads yet is Google doesn’t want to cannibalize Android tablet sales. Make no mistake though – IMO internet-centric Google will almost definitely replace the device-based Android OS with the internet-based Chrome OS in the not-too-distant future.

  • tz

    “It can’t even do everything that a tablet can do.”
    In a laptop hardware form?
    I don’t get it.

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