Chromebook set to transform how we think about computers

On June 15, Google will officially take the next step on its road to global domination. From that day onwards, online shoppers will be able to buy the Google Chromebook, a device that the search giant hopes will change the way we think about computers — and in the process rain on the parades of Apple and Microsoft.

On the face of it, the Chromebook seems an unlikely game-changer. Its first two manifestations — from electronics giants Samsung and Acer — look like any old netbook: thin (0.79in) clamshell design, 12.1in screen, standard-sized keyboard, trackpad. At 1.45kg, it’s not particularly light. The claimed battery life (8.5 hours for the Samsung version) is pretty good, but otherwise the Google machine looks rather conventional.

The surprises start when you hit the on button. Whoosh! It boots in eight seconds from cold (and wakes in less than a second from sleep mode). And it brings up a web browser (Google’s own Chrome browser, naturally) straight away. There’s an annoying dialogue box in the middle of the screen inviting you to sign into your Gmail account. So you move to put it away because you want to see what other programs come with the machine. Then the penny drops. There don’t seem to be any other programs: well, no serious ones anyway. The browser is effectively all you’ve got. That and a WiFi or 3G connection to the internet.

If this were a film, then the screen would go blurry at this point, signifying a flashback. We’re back in 1993. The internet is still something exotic, a preserve of geeks and Comp Sci researchers. Two years ago Tim Berners-Lee launched something called the world wide web which caused a bit of a stir in those rarefied circles, but left the rest of the world cold. You navigated it by using the arrow keys on the keyboard and hitting return whenever you came on a string of characters beginning “http://”. This took you to another screenful of text with more of these character strings. Big deal.

But now it’s 1993 and a kid called Marc Andreessen has just launched a new kind of program which gives you a graphical window on to this web thingy. He calls it Mosaic, and the moment people see it they suddenly “get” the web. So demand for access to the internet explodes, and a technology entrepreneur named Jim Clark hires Andreessen and his student friends and sets up Netscape and they write a new browser called Navigator and they’re off to the races. Netscape has a frenzied stock market flotation in August 1995 and triggers the first internet boom. Suddenly Clark and Andreessen are sitting atop the hottest company in the technology world.

As their enterprise grew, the Netscape boys had what James Joyce called an epiphany — a sudden, blinding flash of insight: that most people could do most of the computing they needed in a browser. Clark and Andreessen saw a future in which the PC, with its complex and crash-prone operating system, would simply serve as a life-support system for a browser. And if that were the case, then who needed a full-blown operating system?

The only problem was that Microsoft, the 800lb gorilla of the computing business, had built an empire round operating systems, which meant that Netscape’s epiphany represented a mortal threat. So Bill Gates & Co set about destroying the upstart rival with a brutal efficiency that eventually landed them with the antitrust suit that nearly resulted in the break-up of the company. But by the time the US Department of Justice got round to prosecuting Microsoft, Netscape had been crushed, and the vision of the browser at the heart of everything was airbrushed from the record. End of flashback.

Cloud computing
With hindsight, we can see that Netscape was too far ahead of the curve. For the browser to become the centre of the computing universe, a number of other conditions had to be met, of which the most important was universal broadband connectivity. And there wasn’t much of that back in 1995/96. The other thing that was missing at the time was what we now call “cloud computing” — the technology that enables processing to be done not by one’s PC or laptop but by huge server-farms located out there on the internet.

Coincidentally, tomorrow sees Apple’s first big move into the cloud. At the annual Apple Developers’ conference in San Francisco Steve Jobs will launch the company’s iCloud service which will enable subscribers to upload their iTunes libraries and stream tracks over the net to wherever they happen to be. In theory this is similar to the “digital locker” services offered by both Amazon and Google, but in practice it has one major advantage: Amazon and Google have struggled — and largely failed — to persuade the record labels to license streaming whereas Apple, the dominant player in legal downloads, seems to have obtained the labels’ agreement.

But streaming music from the cloud is relatively small beer compared with what Google has in mind for the Chromebook.

Its launch signals the company’s belief that the conditions necessary to put the browser at the centre of our computing universe have now been met. Chromebook users can do most of the things they do with PCs and laptops without storing anything on their machines. And they can do it all in the browser that now serves not just as a window on to the world wide web, but as a gateway to what one might call the world wide computer.

Underpinning Chromebook is a conjecture: that there is a big market — both domestic and corporate — for hassle-free computing. Most people (so the argument goes) don’t want to grapple with the spam, malware, operating system updates, security patches and hard-disk failures that come with running a PC. But up to now they’ve had few alternatives. The same goes for companies and organisations, which have discovered that providing IT support for hundreds or thousands of users is an unremitting, expensive and thankless task. Google purports to offer an escape from this nightmare. As its co-founder Sergey Brin puts it: “The complexity of managing your computer is torturing users. It’s a flawed model fundamentally. Chromebooks are a new model that doesn’t put the burden of managing your computer on yourself.” Every time you boot up a Chromebook, it will have the latest version of its software and the newest security patches. Google will filter out the spam and check attachments for viruses. And if your machine breaks, or is stolen, all your data will be OK, because it will be stored (and backed up) in Google’s cloud. All you need to do is get a replacement Chromebook, log in and — bingo! — you’re back to where you left off.

You can buy a Chromebook for about $575. But the more intriguing option is that of regarding it more like a cellphone — ie, getting one on a monthly contract. In what is clearly an attack on Microsoft’s home turf, Google is offering companies a deal: for $28 per user per month, they get free Chromebooks, technical support, replacement under warranty and regular hardware updates. A monthly deal is being offered to schools and universities for $20 per student.

The Chromebook is the latest step in an evolutionary path from the open, programmable PC to the closed, tethered information appliance. In that sense, it’s very like Apple’s iDevices — machines that offer security and reliability in return for abject submission to Apple’s control. If Chromebooks succeed, they will give Google a comparably powerful position in the computing universe. The comparison with the iPad is particularly interesting, because iPads have proved surprisingly popular in the corporate world, despite the limitations which render them effectively useless for some important organisational tasks (spreadsheet modelling, for example). With their non-virtual keyboards and more powerful web-based applications, Chromebooks might be a more attractive option for many companies, especially given estimates that their total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) per user ($336) might be only a tenth of the TCO of a conventional PC. In the business world, that kind of money talks.

For the rest of us, the attractiveness of Chromebooks will depend mainly on whether wireless and 3G networks can provide the ubiquity, speed and responsiveness that make a web appliance useable. Sadly, these are things beyond our control. And beyond Google’s, too. The path to world domination can be rocky. –

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