Computing Applications

Who Needs a Chromebook?

Geeky Ventures Founder Greg Linden

Google has announced a new netbook called a Chromebook. Already, much like they did with netbooks and tablets, some in the press are hailing the Chromebook as a fundamental change in personal computing, a device that has the potential to eliminate the PC.

Is the Chomebook a fundamental change in personal computing? Or a just another netbook? To answer that, let’s ask some questions. Who is this for? Who does the Chromebook appeal to?

At its heart, the Google Chromebook is a Linux-based netbook optimized around the web browser. The idea behind Chromebook is that most people just want a web browser. Just a web browser. Most people don’t really want a computer in front of them, they really want a window on the Web.

The Chromebook appears to take this idea pretty far, as far as all the attempts at network computers before it. This is hardly the first attempt at a thin client — a machine that acts as little but a display for programs running on other machines — and all those past failed attempts also sold themselves on promises of lower maintenance costs, better reliability, and stronger security, but failed nonetheless.

In fact, if you want to, you can get quite close to a Chromebook right now. You can already buy a Linux netbook, spend all your time in the web browser, and store all your data in the cloud. It’s more secure, easy to maintain, and works just fine. But very few people do that.

Why is that? Why don’t people seem to want a small laptop that does nothing but browse the Web?

Part of the problem probably is price. Chromebooks cost as much as netbooks and laptops that do a lot more. Google is marketing this as less is more, but that’s probably an easier sell for the sexy and fashionable iPad than for a netbook, even if that netbook might be Googly.

Part of the problem probably is risk. You buy into a lot of unknowns when you buy a Chromebook — Will it work well offline? Will there be compatibility problems? Is it actually more secure? Is maintenance actually going to be easier? Can I do everything I want to on it? — that whittle away at the promised advantages. Worse, much of the risk is realized upfront while the promised advantages are either abstract or only apparent in the long-term, which discounts their value further.

And part of the problem is functionality. Like tablets and netbooks, Chromebooks only serve a niche. A Chromebook is an awkward compromise between smartphones and traditional PCs, giving us a device that too large to be pocketable like a smartphone but also that has an insufficient keyboard, screen, and power to do more than light reading, entertainment, and communication. Just as most tablet users also own and use smartphones and PCs, the type of person who will own a Chromebook likely also will own a smaller smartphone and a more versatile PC. The Chromebook probably is a supplemental device, not a replacement, for people who already own many computing devices.

So, when you add this up, the Chromebook looks like just another netbook, something that will sell a few million units, not a fundamental change in personal computing. It does not look likely to have mass appeal or to be a big seller.

What would the Chromebook need to be to be the start of a fundamental change in personal computing? It would need to appeal to a very large group. For example, if Chromebook wants to be a laptop replacement for general consumers, it probably needs a bigger screen and keyboard, near seamless functionality offline, and much more good software available for it. If it wants to a PC for people who don’t really want PCs, it probably needs to be much easier to use, absolutely obvious and simple, not at all for geeks, instead built for a grandma who doesn’t even know what a web page is. If it wants to be for businesses, it probably needs to be designed for centralized admin of a fleet of Chromebooks, have enterprise level support, and have no problems accessing all the existing (and often old and rickety) enterprise systems, databases, and software.

What do you think? Will the Chromebook have broad appeal? Does Chromebook offer a fundamental change in personal computing?

For more on related topics, please see also my recent blog@CACM posts, "Who Needs a Netbook?" and "Who Needs a Tablet?"

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