17 February 2013

Chrome OS could change computing forever.

Back in the glory days of Netscape Navigator and the introduction of Java we debated the moment when the web would replace the computer operating system. Microsoft, unsurprisingly, had a very different vision. Thanks to their Java Virtual Machine and Internet Explorer they quickly brainwashed the concept from our gray-matter. iOS and Android's app stores further solidified the power of old fashioned compiled code, training us to download and update software instead of clicking a link since we all know a program is just plain better than a web site, right? Fortunately, Google never gave up on that web-only dream and we may be closer than ever to achieving it.

To get a glimpse into this new world just pick up a Google Chromebook. An Acer model runs a couple hundred or a Samsung MacBook Air-like design with two years of free 3G cellular can be had for one Benjamin more. You would expect with prices like this to have a Netbook quality crap product and in some ways you will be right. The Samsung model is under powered and the Acer product has Microsoft Surface Pro battery life. However, there is enough here to easily justify the purchase price as a secondary device or a primary for someone who lives in Gmail and web browsing. More critically, these products nicely outline how someone could conceivably live with nothing more than a web browser as their primary computer someday.

Gmail is available in both online and off-line versions so you can reply to messages when Comcast has cut you off due to your P2P activities. All of the expected Google products are at your fingertips - maps, voice, plus, news, docs, YouTube and so on. The major competitors are there, too, with almost every Chrome app available for free: SkyDrive, DropBox, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest. You have note taking (Evernote), image editing (Pixlr), video editing (WeVideo), basic publishing apps (Simplebooklet), web site editors (Page Rapid) and drawing utilities (AutoCAD). You can watch movies, read book, play music and store files locally. They include 100 gigs of storage on Google Drive to hold just about anything you want in the cloud. If you are looking for games my son, who is playing Crazy Rollercoaster at this moment, will tell you Chrome is one of the greatest game platforms ever after discovering all of his favorites and dozens of new beauties. Finally, thanks to the joys of Hyper-V you can open up applications or your whole desktop from the office to get "real work" done.

Now, the naysayers have plenty of valid points. You need Citrix or some remote desktop connection to use real work software, the games are mostly just conversions from the phone and tablet world, the productivity tools are light versions (at best), the hardware could be cheaper and the device is somewhat usless without an internet connection. All very true. However, none of those points change the fact that if I am going on holiday I would much rather take this than a Nexus 7 or an iPad. While tablets are great for consumption the laptop design with a real keyboard and a touchpad are ideal for getting work done and this Chromey thing with a 3G connection is better than any netbook or tablet I have used.

Thanks to the Nexus devices and Amazon Google has no need for a new low-priced tablet operating system, but it is easy to picture a Chrome tablet in Google's future. The design is ideal for a touch screen environment with large app icons and the clean Chrome design. In fact, were it not for Google dominating the handheld market with Android we would likely already see such a device today.

For suits the Chromebook and Chromebox are already compelling devices for anyone running a remote desktop environment. Chromebox makes an excellent option instead of a Thin-client for employees working from home or in the office, though I do think the price needs to drop to under two hundred bucks. A Chromebook is an excellent device to hand to each of your traveling staff to connect wherever they might be. In a pinch, Google Docs is a fine option for displaying and editing documents, so it is even realistic for them to open a PowerPoint presentation locally. In a pinch. The fact that Chrome devices often have limited local storage is a plus for security concerns since you do not want these documents on a device that can be stolen. Of course, the biggest plus is that these things are disposable-cheap.

Today Google's Chrome OS is mostly a vision for the future. Sure, schools are already picking these devices up by the boatload but most of us will find these to be purely a secondary or tertiary item due to the limitations. We need to separate ourselves a bit more from the Microsoft Office monopoly to make Google's document editing suite a more viable option. Internet connectivity needs to be everywhere for these devices which means you should not consider this without a cellular connection for the moments Wi-Fi is unavailable. The processor needs to get a bit faster and the battery life should surpass that of an iPad. Still, this product is the first truly viable Web-only operating system device that kept Bill Gates up at night while Clinton was staring at a blue dress. There are a lot of reasons it took this long to achieve, but we have Google to thank for not giving up on the dream.