June 10, 2011

Chromebooks Poised for First Look Under the Microscope

Google's browser-centric Chrome OS will be getting its first reviews from those outside of the company's beta program starting this week as units from Samsung and Acer reach the first buyers on OEM hardware. Already, reviews have started flowing in, with the first observations offering a mixed set of feedback, as many struggle to find a way to assess the products - either comparing them to traditional OS-based laptops, or thanks to the pricepoint, against low end netbooks.

Unsurprisingly, the responses are typically positive about the ease of use and access, but eyes are quickly drawn to what's missing, namely, the host of traditional software applications that live beyond the browser today.

Browsing my Mac Mail on Chrome OS With Google Music Playing

When launching a new product into a very crowded space with tons of history, a new challenger needs to determine a few things, including:
  • Does the product accomplish something altogether new, never done before?
  • Does the product improve upon existing systems in capability or performance?
  • Does the product save people money while offering similar capability?
For those curious about ChromeOS or iOS or Android or any new technology, the basic questions revolve around whether the new product will help them achieve more, or avoid problems with what's already in place. In my initial review of the beta CR-48 unit, I said the browser lock-in felt like I "had been placed on house arrest," adding "serious efforts will need to be taken to convince people why putting everything in the cloud, and abandoning (for the most part) applications they know well, will help their lives." This is the age-old conundrum of marketing in general - tell us why it's better, not just that you've introduced something, but why this will help me.

In the ensuing months, I have increasingly been using my ChromeOS notebook (and am writing this post on it now, while streaming tunes on Google Music). The device's built-in 3G connection, thanks to Verizon, and incomparable battery life has made it a must for events and practically any time I leave the house. I've taken to calling it my "car computer", much like the carphones of old, as instead of lugging a heavy laptop bag complete with power cords, I just put the CR-48 under my arm and then place it on the passenger seat. I'm often stopping before or after meetings to use the laptop from the parking lot, or catching up on email before I drive to the next place. It's incredibly convenient. That said, it's still playing the role of the "second computer" for me and will likely for most people until they get more accustomed to cloud-based Web apps, and as those apps increase in number and quality.

Google's team hasn't said ChromeOS is for everyone. For designers bound to Final Cut Pro and PhotoShop, abandoning those apps is a practical impossibility. At Google IO the company instead spoke to the worker bees who primarily use their company laptops for email, Web access and word processing, all of which can be done on ChromeOS with solid quality, even if Google Docs still takes some getting used to for the Microsoft Office whiz. The company's initial marketing forays speak to fast boot up (which is yes, very fast), the elimination of viruses so common on Windows (but don't scare most Mac users), and the future being the Web. As I wrote on Tuesday, the definition of cloud differs between tech companies these days, but Google's approach, where all user data is on the Web, and the hardware is interchangeable, seems the most pure.

My Current Array of Browser Apps Is a Start for ChromeOS

A Web centric world is one that takes some getting used to, but once you've gotten used to having 3G networking everywhere, and battery that goes all day, typical limitations seem substandard. My wife borrowed my CR-48 to take with her to a meeting at church (which has no WiFi) and while on 3G, she was able to download the membership directory and edit a spreadsheet for upcoming meeting schedules. On the CR-48, all we had to do was make a new user for her on my machine, tied to her own Google account, and her activity didn't get in the way of my own.

Initial feedback on the CR-48's flaws, including the much-maligned trackpad and perceived pokiness, have pretty much been eliminated after months of quick driver updates over the air. I now routinely have Google Music running in one browser window, Seesmic or Twitter in another, and in a third, multiple tabs open to my multiple email accounts. Instead of a cluttered interface, however, Chrome OS has adopted to let me quickly rotate screens, either from a dedicated key for "Next Window" or the familiar alt-tab, used more commonly to switch apps in Mac or Windows. And knowing what I know about Samsung's high quality hardware, which is behind my Android tablets, my Android phone and the TVs in our house, I am looking forward to seeing what they do with their first Chromebooks.

With this first volley, you can anticipate media reaction, which will no doubt be eager to claim success or failure of the project, with box counters and trend spotters alike looking for initial sales numbers and market share penetration. My bet is you won't get sales numbers from Google directly, while Samsung, Acer and others will give insight into the results, or Best Buy might report the data from their online store. It's also extremely likely that Google is in this game for the long haul. Chrome is one of the pillars of the company, so if there is anything resembling slowness, they'll listen and iterate fast, as they're known to. Meanwhile, you can look forward to headlines like those from PC World who eagerly said Chromebooks are "doomed to fail". Everybody wants their bets in early, in the chance they might be right.

What I know is that after initially relying on MacBook Air for more than 90 percent of what I do with my laptops, the Chromebook is taking more and more of my time and it's liberating to take it with me to the park or anywhere I need to go and know my data and my Web will be with me. I look forward to apps I've had to leave behind, like Spotify and others, making the leap to the Web and away from the desktop metaphor. I'd bet, just like the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X a decade ago, those laggards will get there. And you just might see people increasingly taking to Chromebooks for low-cost access to the Web.

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