Chromebook : the future of computing?

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2013-06-13 14.56.27

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.

 

About garyturner

Gary Turner is co-founder and managing director at Xero UK.

Replies (23)

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By JC
14th Jun 2013 13:02

Trust !

Google and trust do not go hand in hand

Just look at all their slight of hand over the past few years - privacy, stateless income, scanning emails for advertising opportunities etc.

What makes anyone think they can really trust a company that knows all about you and has a proven track record of using your information to further their own ends?

Whatever happened to Google DNA -

http://mashable.com/2007/09/13/23andme-illumina/

http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-12-21/google-ups-ante-in-startup-run...

mmmmm .... caveat emptor

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By garyturner
14th Jun 2013 14:15

Shades of grey

@JC I know what you mean.

But is it really that much different to any organisation you use, whether that's Sainsbury recording how many visits you make, which intimate items you may be spending your money on - sending you a personalised birthday card with a money off voucher! - or Google using your data to serve you up adverts.

They certainly have a more privileged position than a single supplier (unless they group around shared loyalty schemes like Nectar) because they see a lot more rather than a single silo of your lifestyle data, but if we're generally happy for organisations to store information about us (admittedly, some people are not), what makes Google any more or less trustworthy?

Gary Turner
Managing Director, Xero
@garyturner

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By JC
14th Jun 2013 14:38

Of course the next steps are ....

@garyturner - I take your points on board

Don't forget they already tailor their search engine results to what they think you want based upon past searches

Once they have all your normal details - which is actually not hard to do by joining up the dots - IP --> person --> address --> bank ..... medical?

Then they acquire your DNA and along the way work out whether there is a certain medical history in your family - and advise life assurance companies accordingly (for a fee). So what happens to your life premiums or motor or ctitical illness any other cover required?

... as well as all the other things along the way associated with your health & personal details

This really does start to become a ... big brother scenario - and with Google's propensity for re-writing their own privacy policy whenever it suits them

How trusting are you ... and would you be prepared to stake your life on this company because that is what it could come down to!

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By garyturner
14th Jun 2013 15:06

Personal choice

@JC - I think it comes down to personal choice. I deliberately don't have any retail loyalty cards because I don't want to make it any easier for retailers to market to me and I like being on the outside, 'sticking it to the man' and making my own buying decisions.

Whereas conversely I don't mind using GMail for personal email as I reckon that if Google ever got caught sharing my lifestyle information directly with a third party like an insurance company or anyone else in an underhand way such as you suggest, it would probably be the death of them. And as we've seen in the last week, if they were already doing that the risk of a whistleblower exposing it is too great.

Gary Turner
Managing Director, Xero
@garyturner

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By redman7
14th Jun 2013 18:31

whilst I do underdstand

whilst I do understand the privacy issues, the upsides of using tools like Gmail and DropBox are too important to me in the running of a lean, efficient business for me to ignore them.

I'm typing this on a chromebook :-)

What I like about the chromebook is nothing is stored on it - so if someone were to nick it whilst I'm out and about nothing is lost (I hope)

Also it's cheap, light and boots up in seconds :-)

It can't do everything but for web surfing, replying to emails, working through my task list etc. it's a great piece of kit.

Because it is so cheap I just chuck it in my bag without a worry

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Locutus of Borg
By Locutus
14th Jun 2013 18:53

But aren't Chromebooks useless when there's no internet?

Whilst WiFi penetration is widespread these days, there are still plenty of places where it doesn't exist, will probably never exist or, like yesterday for me when my home internet connection started playing up.

Sorry, I still like an internal hard drive or solid state drive for those occasions when I need to work offline.

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By garyturner
14th Jun 2013 20:30

Chromebooks have SSD storage...

Plus you can tether to your mobile and get online with 3G if out of range of WiFi or spend £50 more and get the Chromebook that comes 3G ready, just add a SIM  card for data.

Gary Turner
Managing Director, Xero
@garyturner

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Locutus of Borg
By Locutus
14th Jun 2013 20:15

Thanks Gary

I stand corrected.

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By carnmores
15th Jun 2013 11:36

it presupposes that

you wont keep any data on a local drive, i dont susbribe to that

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By garyturner
15th Jun 2013 14:14

It has local storage...

The Chromebook I reviewed had 16 GB of local storage capacity and an SD card slot if you need to add more - so easily 32 GB.

Gary Turner
Managing Director, Xero
@garyturner

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By carnmores
15th Jun 2013 14:24

yes but

you cant really load windows programs on it can you , without extreme faffing

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Teignmouth
By Paul Scholes
16th Jun 2013 10:49

Interesting post

@carnmores I think that's the point of the post, eventually you won't need to.

Which leads me onto my difficulty in that whilst I could use such a device at the moment to run the business (everything being hosted) I don't want to have to get a 2nd machine for personal stuff.

These days I spend perhaps a third of my screen time on photo/camera stuff and whilst Adobe has just released Photoshop CC in the Cloud, and that this will soon be the only place you can get it, all my other photo stuff is still deskbound.

My 13" MacBook Air therefore with it's SSD and great screen and Mac photo software is a perfect one stop shop for anything in the cloud or on my desktop and I don't see that changing for some years.

PS: Does the Chromebook have a USB port?

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By The 5-50 Coach
16th Jun 2013 13:37

The other thing I like about them is the ability to use commonly available software, for free. Perhaps I'm getting old and mean, but the spreadsheet and word equivalent are good.

I've often used them so that two people are collaborating on a document at the same time, saving time and energy.

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By Old Greying Accountant
16th Jun 2013 23:08

@ Paul ..

... I don't want my photo's anywhere than on my own hardware (or any of my data)!

As for cloud based, they were black storm clouds this week! 5 - 10 minutes for a page to load is not good!

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By carnmores
17th Jun 2013 13:39

Paul , i forgive the condenscion

i know that the cloud  was the point of the article. the point i was making is that a rewrite of comprehensive desktop solutions such as iris sage and digita are going to take a massive amount of time money and effort so the hosted solution is the interim horse for the course but many will not want that and will rely on desktop solutions.

anyway a sop to Gary what do you make of Xeros plan to add the statutory accounts function to their accounting solution

PS like you possibly i have been using compueters since 1980 the blessed Commodore

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Teignmouth
By Paul Scholes
17th Jun 2013 14:57

carnmores

Whilst I didn't mean it to come over like that, it was Sunday, but sorry :-)

In a similar fashion, just because Iris, S*** & Digita have yet to write their Cloud Offerings (although Iris now has Tax & Audit ticked), doesn't mean you have to stick with them and so, as you point out, it opens the way for existing Cloud providers like Xero to step in.

So, despite being an age old Iris supporter, I'd have to admit that if, in a year or two, I was looking to start out, there's no way I'd opt for deskbound stuff.

So yes, it's a logical and welcome step from Xero to open up stat accounts to the UK and with  Work Papers & Workflow Max added, you are looking at practice & work management as well.  The downside however is having to wait perhaps 2 years for their tax side, but then you could sign up for Iris OpenCloud Tax....sorted.

Interesting times (to read about from my retirement poolside).

 

OGA, are you saying you have photos you'd rather not let others see (!?), or just that you don't trust the Cloud?

Whilst I have all my data and several hundred pix in the Cloud and wouldn't have any problem putting all 20,000 pix up there for storage, it means a Data Centre somewhere using up electricity making them available 24/7 when I prefer to keep them on spare unplugged hard drives.....Green Rules

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By Old Greying Accountant
17th Jun 2013 23:57

@ Paul

... both, and not because they are smutty or anything, I am just a private person, and no I do not trust the cloud, I think Google and face book have destroyed any trust I may have, they can say what they like but it is just yadda yadda yadda, even if they get caught out people will have forgortten in a few days and everything will be back to normal because it is easy and people take the easy route, despite the pitfalls.

Plus the fact, if internet is down or whatever I still have my systems to work on.

As an aside, just bought a new lens for my camera, had to use Goggle Wallet - I object to haiving to put my credit card details on their system, but the price was well below other  (about £80 less) so what choice? - but I still am not happy and as soon as the lens arrives I will be looking to have the details deleted, but probably too late as will have been disseminated to God alone how many places by then.

It in just an insinuous and relentless take over of all we do and we have no way of stopping it and soon there will be no opt outs - the way things are we wil be worse than 1984 very soon and I for one am agin it.

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By carnmores
19th Jun 2013 08:51

@Paul no worries

i got over it , we are all guilty

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By JC
24th Jun 2013 12:47

Wi-Fi availability ....

@garyturner

Just got back from France - rubbish wi-fi availability so had to enable the mobile phone as a 'hot spot' (tethered)

In order to do this Data Roaming needs to be turned on with all the associated costs - even on a UK providers 'special' it currently still comes down to about £3 per day - or one can pay for access to a French provider at 4 Euro/hour (or bargain of 40 Euro/wk)

So under these circumstances the Chromebook looks a very expensive option to run which negates the advantages

PS. doesn't 3G ready mean that you need two provider contracts - one for mobile phone & another for the Chromebook SIM card ? - therefore more costs involved !

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By garyturner
24th Jun 2013 12:56

International data is a car crash

@JC - I know what you mean but I don't think it torpedoes the Chromebook concept because any tech device usage overseas is so practically difficult to setup or achieve and prohibitively expensive that it's just not worth the bother - whether that's a smartphone, full spec Windows laptop or a lowly Chromebook.

I incurred up an eye-watering £600 bill from O2 for 30mb of data usage on my iPhone in New Zealand a couple of years ago.

The whole overseas data thing is a mess.

Gary Turner
Managing Director, Xero
@garyturner

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By carnmores
25th Jun 2013 13:11

we are
Unanimous

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By carnmores
25th Jun 2013 13:47

gary
How is the stat acs add on to zero coming along

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By garyturner
26th Jun 2013 11:19

@carnmores - The work to localise Report Packs functionality for the UK is in development, still a way to go. The core reporting engine is built (it's been available in New Zealand for 18 months and about six months ago in Australia) - so, the outstanding work lies mostly in localising the report formats and outputs for UK and US compliance.

Gary Turner
Managing Director, Xero
@garyturner

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