Two years ago Google showed off the first Chromebooks. It’s taken that long for New Zealand to get a reasonable supply of the devices from a range of computer makers.
Now Chromebooks are here in volume.
Chromebooks are laptops that run Google’s Chrome operating system. This makes them quite different from Windows or Mac laptops.
The browser is the computer
While the version of Chrome inside a Chromebook is an operating system in the sense that it handles normal OS tasks, it is also a web browser. Everything you do with Chrome – strictly that should read almost everything you do – is done in the browser.
If you’ve used the Chrome browser on another computer, you’re fully training in the Chrome OS. That’s about all there is to it.
Being a browser, Chrome is mainly used to run web apps. That is applications hosted somewhere on the internet in the cloud. Most of the heavy lifting is done by distant computers in vast datacenters.
Chromebooks in the cloud
In addition to web apps, Chromebooks can run apps that are essentially browser extensions. Although they link back to the cloud, some can do minimal local processing. Among other things this means you can write using Google Docs while not connected to the internet.
All of this means Chromebooks are limited in comparison with Windows or Apple OS X computers.
Or maybe not. There are things you can’t realistically do well with Chrome that are doable on those machines – but far fewer tasks than you’d imagine.
Chrome isn’t great for creating audio or video content. It’s not the best tool for building web sites. Developing software is hard going.
In effect a Chromebook is a dumb terminal – most of the computing is done at the other end of the line somewhere on a server in the bowels of a Google datacentre.
Dumb, but in a good way, because it makes computing simple.
That may sound strange – for the first 25 years after the first PCs appeared the computer industry mainly went out of its way to make computing more complicated. Each time Microsoft launched a new operating system or new applications, there would be a long list of new features. They were promoted as reasons to buy – sometimes they were – but they also made computers more complicated and bloated.
Some like it complex
Complexity and bloat is music to the ears of a certain breed of hardcore computer user. To everyone else it sounds like bad news. Most people just want to get things done – without worrying too much about the technology.
Fast forward to when Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. It scored precisely because it was a computer pared down to its essentials. It could only do 80 to 90 percent of what can be done with a PC, but for most people those are the only tasks that matter.
Suddenly the myth that everyone wanted complexity was burst. ChromeBooks are a different take on the same idea. Being dumb, limited and simple can mean a better focus on the work in hand, which in turn means better productivity. There’s less scope for fiddling with settings and so on – although having a browser connected to the web means there’s still plenty of distraction.
There are other advantages. Because web apps store documents on remote servers, there’s no question of losing everything if there’s a hardware problem. You don’t even have to worry about making back-ups. On the other hand, you run the risk that every spy – and possibly Google – can read all your documents whenever they choose.
Chromebooks are not for everybody. You can pay the same money and get basic Windows devices with the potential to handle a wider range of tasks – pay another $200 or so and you’ll get considerably more computer.