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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?"


Comments


Anonymous

Geeks are the wrong people to comment. Let your grandparents use one & see what they think.


Macneil Shonle

And on the chance that the enterprise simply loves the Chromebook concept and can't get enough of it? Then Microsoft would respond with an Officebook with similar costs and data plans. If this is the future, the company profiting from it won't be Google.


Valeriy Artukhin

Another Part of the problem here is confidence: even for a geek like me it is still important to keep my data within a hand's reach. Yes, I store data in the cloud, but as a rule, cloud is not the only place I put it.


Ravi Shankar

In countries such as India, the mobile penetration is increasing exponentially and also relative to PC penetration. With prevalent issues in power reliability, also erratic power availability, and lower broadband speeds (in some places still dial ups are a norm), it is moot point if chromebooks will be a hit in India.

IPAD is just starting out in India and the jury is waiting to decide on IPAD. IPAD is just elitist here in India.


Anonymous

The Chromebook is hogging a bit of limelight in the technology world but is this all a fad?

This product is innovative but not the Windows killer. Is this a consumer product or an enterprise product? The level of internet penetration is abysmal in countries where a device like the OLPC made headway, making the mythological always on connectivity to the internet virtually non-existent, thereby making the device absolutely impossible to use in such terrains. In geographies where we do have the always on connectivity to the internet, are we ready to let go of our data and store them all in the cloud? I think the answer is a categorical No. Penetrating the enterprise market will be so challenging and price point is not reflective of a cheap product. Although, the product is also available at a monthly rental cost, the lack of offline capabilities for the currently supported applications will render the device useless when disconnected from the internet. What would happen if you had to travel to locales with patchy internet connection? Obviously, you still need your laptop or the now forgotten netbooks.

Enterprises are Windows centric, and so are the applications. Most enterprise applications have been designed to run on Windows platform and having a good product only is not sufficient to attract the masses to this product. Remember the Betamax and VHS battle of old. And in recent times, remember Apple and the App Store, against the rest. People and enterprises require computers, laptops etc. because of the applications, not the other way round.

Data theft, immaturity of the cloud (remember the recent outage in Amazon EC2 and previous outages of the Gmail / Google Apps service), identity theft, SLAs, service availability etc. are concerns Google needs to address.

How I wish there could be a server component perhaps branded as Google Server for enterprises that may be interested in having a Private Cloud or Hybrid Cloud which will be a replica of Google Apps, but locally hosted. At least that will take away the concern around information security. There is the plan to have a Citrix Receiver for the Chrome which will allow you to stream Windows applications from the data centre to the device. Yes, it is a VDI type scenario. You may be asking the question, why not just get a dumb terminal to access the resources in my data centre, at a cheaper price or repurpose an end of life device as a thin client.

Finally, where does this leave the Android OS? There are too many unanswered questions. Goggle has perhaps bitten too much.

Femi Akinsola


Anonymous

I cannot think of much to add to your assessment. It would be surprising indeed if this becomes more than a supplemental device in the broader market. It will be one option among many, but not the primary.

We will probably see a much higher use of tablets over the next few years, but with local and remote capabilities. The widespread use of tablets would be enough of a fundamental change for me, at this point.

My immediate personal plan is for a smartphone, a touch-enabled tablet, a compute/graphics monster under the desk, and the cloud.


Anonymous

With Google Native Client, it is (more-or-less) possible to run native, computationally more intensive applications in the Chrome browser. Unfortunately, Google releases the Chromebook well before NaCl would be finished, and important applications (image editors, games etc.) would have been ported to the NaCl platform...


Anonymous

The attributes of the Chromebook that are most appealing are 1) very fast web access from power up, 2) transparent updating, 3) no software to install, ever. One would give up the more general computing options with a Chromebook. But because many applications are web-centered now I think using the Chromebook covers a larger percentage of computing needs than people realize. Online banking, email, news, shopping, social networks are all accessed well by a web-only device. One could say the same for tablets. However, may web-based enterprise applications will be better served on Chromebooks than tablets. More people are savvy using a web browser than using a tablet. It shall be interesting to see whether there is market acceptance.


Anonymous

It will never work in India, the cost of internet access will mean that people will not be able to afford to store their data in the cloud. If people cannot submit their tax returns using the chromebook[submitting a tax return on-line requires excel in India], then it wont be very practical. A computer is expected to do much more then browse the Internet. I guess it is aimed more at western markets.


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