We purchased a couple of Chromebooks for use as demonstration machines at the Accountex exhibition in London last week, and being the curious sort I adopted one for a few days to test out the viability of running a Chromebook as a full time PC replacement.
It was a very interesting experiment that I'll document over a couple of posts.
What is a Chromebook?
The Chromebook product category is a Google invention designed to support the search engine giant’s desire to displace Microsoft from the enterprise and business world by providing a viable alternative to Windows PCs and Microsoft Office with Google Apps and Chromebook hardware.
Like Xero, Google senses that just like the prior shifts from 1950’s mainframe computing to 1980's PC based client server computing, the next big shift to cloud computing is now well underway. And while our existing hardware real estate is capable of straddling both worlds thanks to the browser, the typical PC form factor has a bunch of kit that’s effectively redundant in a cloud computing world – not least the dependencies required to support local file storage - both on-device storage like hard disks as well as the knock-on requirement this creates for local file server infrastructure, too.
So, the theory goes; if we’re increasingly moving towards a cloud computing world where we run apps like Xero in a browser, then why not wrap some computer hardware around just the browser itself and leave all the classic PC and local network baggage behind.
Therefore at its most simplistic level, a Chromebook is exactly that - a web browser with an attached screen and a keyboard.
Déjà vu, all over again
When you think about it though, as transitions go this is not actually as revolutionary a concept as you might imagine at first.
For the first half of its existence the Windows operating system was effectively an app (just like a web browser is today) that you installed and launched on top of the MS-DOS operating system, and it wasn’t really until Windows 95 that the final remnants of MS-DOS dependency effectively vanished and Windows 95 became self-standing operating system all on its own. And so with the Chromebook it’s like history repeating itself all over again, with the now ubiquitous web browser having existed for a similar amount of time as an app before ejecting its host operating system and going solo.
And just as Microsoft had to ensure that Windows provided legacy support for MS-DOS apps for years after Windows 95 launched, so too does the cloudy Chromebook retain a small amount of legacy support in the form of local storage – mine had 16GB of super fast flash storage – in recognition of the fact that Chromebook users will still require to collaborate with non-Chromebook users and swap files around, and also to support offline working because we don’t yet live in a world where internet connectivity is omnipresent.
Critics might naturally point to the presence of these legacy features as evidence that the world is not ready for a device like the Chromebook, but when viewed in the historical context it’s perfectly logical for them to be there to support the transition just like the legacy MS-DOS support in Windows. The Chromebook is a vehicle, not yet a destination.
From the outside a Chromebook looks pretty much like any regular notebook computer. I used the Samsung 3 series with its 11” screen, and as far as dimensions and weight go it’s almost a perfect plastic doppelganger for my 11” MacBook Air.
If the outside is all comfortably familiar then it’s when you open the lid and fire one up that you begin to notice the changes.
Of course, there needs to be a little more to a Chromebook than just an abstracted web browser app suspended conceptually in an operating system vacuum, so Chromebooks necessarily come with Google’s ChromeOS operating system to provide for practical things like setting up user accounts and a small number of control panel like options for changing your desktop wallpaper and configuring WiFi.
However, beyond fleeting glimpses of the ChromeOS chassis sitting behind the scenes, anyone who has used the Google Chrome web browser on a Windows PC or Mac will be instantly at home.
In the second part of this piece I’ll dig into my real world experiences of using a Chromebook; what’s good, what needs work and how I think it might have fundamentally changed the way I work with apps.
Gary Turner is co-founder and managing director at Xero UK.