Thursday, March 20, 2014

Chromebooks

I use a chromebook for a lot of what I do. By all accounts they are gaining popularity in the market and we might ask: why? This is not an aimless question or boosteristic fanboyness. Linux enthusiasts have been trying to break through the near MS monopoly for years and have, by and large, failed. Apple has carved out a specific niche and adds a bit to that niche each year, but it is still a tiny piece of the overall OS use pie chart. Other contenders -- BeOS, NeXT, Open Solaris, QNX, etc. -- have come and gone. Chrome OS has a tiny market share but that market share seems to be growing rapidly and, moreover, every day a new computer maker seems to make a commitment to it (in addition to laptop-like Chromebooks, a new slate of desktop and all-in-one models either or will be in the future launching). Why have Chromebooks succeeded where, say, linux-based netbooks did not? I'd suggest  that several factors are at play and that these factors -- put together -- suggest that Chrome OS is "here to stay," or it is here to stay at least as long as people use laptop and desktop computers.

First, Chrome discovered what the makers of netbooks knew but could not take advantage of: there was a secondary (or, perhaps even tertiary) computer market. In other words, the market for computers was not tapped out. It appears to not be growing (look at the numbers over the last few years and there is not a great deal of growth), but that did not mean that people would not buy a computer. It just meant that they would not buy a computer at a certain price. Economics 101. I have an iMac that my family uses in the family room. It is pain for me because I don't get to use it when I want because others have it (uploading photos, watching movies on iTunes, working on school projects, surfing the net, etc.). I was not going to buy another iMac or even a Macbook air because of the cost but I was willing to lay down $300.00 for a Chromebook. Price point was the key.

Second, and going with that, the computer that I bought … how to put this … I wanted it to look like a computer and have a keyboard I could actually use. I looked at netbooks over the years but never really liked them. The screen was too small as was the keyboard. My Samsung Chromebook, on the other hand, has a reasonable screen for what I am doing with it, a regular keyboard (or, just about) and it actually is rather elegant sitting on my desk. The problem with netbooks, then, was not that their makers did not identify a market; the problem was that they did not create a machine that met the needs of that market.

Third, the cloud is better … than it used to be. Cloud computing might or might not be the wave of the future. I tend to be skeptical about such things. And, even if it is … that might not be what is important. I know the Chromebooks work off line and I know that there are an increasing number of apps that work off line but, really, Chromebooks do need to be online for one to take full advantage of Chrome OS. Even as short as five years ago this was difficult because internet speeds were slower and online products were clunky and slow and often ugly. The thing that has changed is not that people "woke up" and saw the cloud as the future, but that the cloud got better. It got faster, online applications work very well and have lost their clunkiness, and they often look like offline applications on other OSes (Google docs is a key example). The improvements in cloud computer make it a viable option for work now in a way that it was not before.



Fourth, and going along with this, the way in which people use computers has changed. I use my Chromebook as my everyday work-a-day computer at home. I go on the iMac for this and that, but most of what I do, I can do on a Chromebook. To be clear: I cannot do everything. There are things in my line of work that will require, say, MS Word. I didn't make the rule. It is just the case right now and likely will be for a number of years yet. But, for a shocking amount of what I do on a computer … a Chromebook fits the bill and, you know, its simpler and easier to use than other OSes. I am using Google Docs to draft out this blog. I have MS Word on my iMac and MS Word is more versatile and … just does more than Google Docs. But, so what? I don't need that versatility for most of what I do. I need to process text, put together a presentation, keep a fairly simple spreadsheet. I read the newspaper, tweet and check other social media, and maintain correspondence. Using Might Text, I can text my son who is in Alberta while I do other things with a click of a tab. This shift in computer use is not night and day. Most of what I do on a computer -- text processing, correspondence, research -- are things I have been doing for years, but the shift is appreciable enough in terms of what people do that having a machine geared to being online is actually what a lot of of people need. And, remember, this is a secondary market. I use a Chromebook at home for my main machine but I still have the iMac and use a Mac at the office. The key, then, in the shifting use of computers is that that shift did not need to be "to the cloud." The shift need to be modest and could even occur in secondary uses (by which I mean what my kids do, as opposed to what I do, on the computer).

Finally, this might seem a tad subjective, but a Chromebook looks like a computer. One of the problems I always had with netbooks was that, to me, they just did not look like a computer. I think the decision to follow the classic model of what a laptop looks like (or to copy others; models), the small form factor for the Chromebox, and the semi-iMac look for the all-in-ones was a good idea. Periodically I hear people say that we need to get used to doing things differently  … why? Change is good? Who said? I usually argue against change for its own sake. There is nothing wrong with computer design as it is now. It looks good sitting on my desk when I am not using it.

And, Chrome OS did another thing well: it copied the classic desktop model  of user interface. This could be more controversial but the desktop model is one that people like me (who are, I suspect, the demographic that really buys computers even if our kids use them) understand. I like typing a word processing document on a web app that looks like a classic application. Will the interface change? Sure. Will someone create a better way of doing things in the future? Undoubtedly. Can someone else work with a different, more advanced interface than I can? No doubt about it. But, this is not the future and I am not someone else. I am the one who needs to do my work. The Chrome OS interface lets me do it in a way to which I can easily adapt having used another OS almost my entire adult life.

Put all of this together -- and perhaps other things too -- and you get a success story. I'm not certain whether or not Chromebooks and boxes are a threat to MS because they are moving into a market where MS did not really operate anyway. For now, however, what is important -- and what I am happy about -- is that they have found a market.

Addendum:

I skipped over a number of things above in an effort to keep this blog as short as possible. I know, for instance, that virus protection might be important to some people and that I've simplified the Chrome OS timeline. I cut these corners only in the interest of space.
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