Chrome OS is only a failure to people living in the past

Samsung Chromebook

Point-Counterpont. In the second of two posts about Google's cloud-connected operating system and Chromebook, Joe Wilcox argues that PC defenders are an unimaginative lot living in the past. He refutes Larry Seltzer's morning commentary: "I'll take Windows and a good browser over Chrome OS."

I'll be the first to admit that laptops running Chrome OS aren't for everyone. But they're for many more people than my colleague Larry Seltzer suggests. He argues that a Google OS-powered notebook is "defined not by what it can do but by what it does not do; there's nothing that a Chromebook can do that a Windows notebook running Chrome browser cannot." The same reasoning could easily apply to smartphones, tablets, televisions and other high-tech devices running an operating system and web browser. Yet consumers and businesses use these devices in droves. Context often defines what's good enough, and that's missing from most Chrome OS criticisms.

An Arrogant Lot

There's a persistent arrogance among PC users that ignores a fundamental reality about personal computers: Their multifunctional, Jack-of-all-of-trades capability was, until recently, unique among technology devices. The PC's greatest defenders often compare what other devices can't do when evaluating their worthiness. It's that kind of reasoning, particularly among IT decision makers, that kept PDAs, cell phones and smartphones out of businesses. These devices generally entered through the backdoor -- by savvy, forward-thinking employees bringing in their own products. The PC was good enough and pain enough to manage went the IT organization's reasoning.

Most consumers or businesses don't use one tool for everything, because most devices have a single or primary function. So people have a stove, refrigerator, coffee maker and toaster in the kitchen, rather than one device with all these functions. That's typical. The PC is, or was, atypical by doing many things pretty well -- good enough, anyway. That's changing as TVs take on PC functions or cellular handsets behave more like pocket computers than telephony devices. The reasoning against anything not a PC is simply that the device cannot replace the personal computer. I ask: Why does it have to? Why shouldn't it replace the PC, in appropriate context?

The problem isn't the new device's limitations, but the limitations of critics' thinking -- their lack of imagination. The PC's staunchest defenders -- and there are many of them commenting here at Betanews -- put too much emphasis on the device rather than looking at what they might do with it. Filmmakers have shot music videos or films using nothing but cell phones. Example of the former: Rob Dickson's "Oceans" music video, shot on a Nokia N93 mobile in late 2006. The 240p quality video looks fuzzy today, but it was pure innovation nearly five years ago. The other example: Soon after iPhone 4 launched last year, film school grad student Michael Koerbel shot and edited the delightful "Apple of My Eye" short on the smartphone.

Larry talks about the past -- how Chrome OS is new take on the 1990s thin-computing concept that failed then and will do so now. "Chromebook is old wine in new bottles," he says. Some Betanews readers' arguments against Chrome OS are similar to Larry's -- pointing out limitations. What's old here isn't thin-computing but their thinking, clinging to 1980s-era concepts. PCs are faster and perhaps prettier than they were 30 years ago, but the basic concept of monitor, keyboard and mouse running software and connected to a corporate network is fundamentally the same. Meanwhile, during the 2000s, cell phones dramatically changed. Tablets evolved from the PC and now the cloud-connected laptop is coming. The "can't do" crowd defends the PC past, while can-doers live in the present and the future. They use the right device, in applicable context and apply lots of imagination.

Context is King

For closed-minded readers, I'll put context in, well, another context. A bicycle might be good enough for riding around the neighborhood but not for a quick 25-mile commute to work. Most people would have a car and bicycle, like they would a PC and smartphone. Each has appropriate contextual usage. People do make phone calls via Skype on PCs, but the majority of calls are made on the cellular handset. Similarly, the phone might be good enough for Web browsing or gaming on the go, but the PC would be better at home or at the office.

But there are contexts where a car is either too much or unnecessary. When I lived in Manhattan, I got around on foot or by bike -- sometimes by subway or taxi. A car was simply too much for my travel needs, particularly considering proximity of things I needed and the cost of insuring and parking an auto in New York City. The same can be said for the PC. Most Town Car drivers I've met use a mobile phone as their primary PC -- or only one. It's more than enough in context of their spending so much of the work day on the go.

The point: Not every consumer or business employee needs Windows. Many students, who already live in the browser because of social media apps, are constantly connected to the Internet at home or school. Web applications running in Chrome OS on a flip-the-lid-and-it's-ready-to-use Chromebook has appeal. They can play games, watch TV shows from Hulu, watch or even rent movies from YouTube and stream tunes from Google's music service or one of many others -- such as MOG or Pandora. For most of what they need, Chromebook will be good enough. The first Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung are thin and light and affordable, starting at $349. There's dual context for students -- their needs versus a Chromebook's capabilities and price and their experience literally living in a browser.

Similarly, many workers don't need Windows, particularly if they're in customer service roles where the back-end data system is accessed via web browser. They're not running data locally anyway -- no more than would be cachable and accessible on Chrome OS as Windows running a browser. The whole "what if the Net connection goes down criticism" is pointless. If the network goes down, they're not going to be able to work anyway. In context of their needs, the IT organization is buying too much hardware and spending too much for the employees' roles. If employees are using Windows thin clients, is Chromebook so different then?

There are lots of scenarios like this one where Chromebook would make as much sense, or more, than a Windows desktop or laptop. The possible savings over Windows PCs running Office are potentially huge, as I explained last week.

I Speak from Experience

I've had the privilege of using Chrome OS. In December, Google kindly shipped one of the 60,000 pilot program Cr-48 laptops running the cloud-connected, browser-based Linux operating system to me. So I write from experience, with some authority, about what Chrome OS is capable of -- and not. Chrome OS is heartier now than my first tests. The newest build, now available for Cr-48 laptops, features more offline capabilities.

Larry defines Chrome OS by what it can't do. Let me tell you something it can do that many people need: Iterate and innovate at rapid pace. Google's Chrome OS development is loosely tied to its web browser, which is on hellfire, six-week development cycles. Already, Google has released Chrome 10 and 11 this year, and v12 is in beta. Google is improving the browser and browser OS at breakneck pace, issuing automatic updates as stable builds are ready. Meanwhile, three or more years separate each new Windows version, which businesses or consumers must buy and deploy -- a particularly hard burden for IT organizations.

What Chrome OS can do is bring managed computing into the 21st Century. It relegates the operating system to the place it belongs -- as a necessary but largely inconsequential utility. That's terrible for Microsoft's business model but a boon of savings for consumers and businesses -- and it removes them from the hardship of managing updates or purchasing new software.

Related: Applications. PC defenders argue, as Larry does, that web apps aren't good enough. Of course they are. They're often better, because the user interfaces are simpler and more compact. With Office comes bloatware of features and code. Web apps pull much of the complexity to the server, freeing up local resources and providing the user with more of what he or she needs contextually. Millions of consumers and businesses are satisfied with mobile applications, which also are small, tidy and consume lower resources than PC software. Mobile and web apps share similar profile, in that respect.

Chrome OS and Chromebook won't be for everyone -- not today. But given how fast is Google's development cycle, perhaps most anyone will be the truism by the time Microsoft ships Windows 8, or whatever the hell it's called.

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