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“Anyone saying that Android apps on ChromeOS are a good experience is delusional.”

Google PixelbookIn Chrome OS has stalled out, Dave Ruddock says Google’s Chrome OS has failed to live up to its potential. Ruddock is a Chrome user who says he does 95 percent of his work using the operating system.

When Chrome OS first appeared it looked like the future. Or at least one version of a potential future.

It’s a great idea on paper.

Take a minimal specification computer. One that costs almost nothing to make and almost everyone can afford. Give it just enough hardware to connect to the net and handle a web browser.

Cloud power

Then let efficient remote cloud systems do all the heavy lifting. After all, that’s what most people now do most of the time anyway. Few MacBooks or Surface Books are not web-connected.

ChromeOS users mainly connect to free services. That’s a problem because in the online world free can be a high price to pay.

Large companies don’t give services away out of the goodness of their hearts. They want to advertise their client’s products or manipulate you into voting a certain way. And we all know that works. It’s an aspect of surveillance capitalism.

This gets worse.

ChromeOS uses Android apps to plug functionality or entertainment gaps. The experience is bad.

Android apps can be cheap and nasty at the best of times. They collect far too much user data. Many Android apps live at the seamy end of surveillance capitalism.

Ask yourself why you need to give someone your home address to write a document or your first pet’s name1 in order to put an interesting filter on your uploaded pictures.

Dismal

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Android app on ChromeOS experience is dismal. I can’t bear to use it.

Many apps were clearly written for phones and make little or no allowance for larger screens and keyboards. They are buggy as anything and many are a security nightmare2.

There’s something else bad about Chrome. We live in a world where technology iterates towards a kind of nirvana. Each successive line of Windows or MacOS computers is a step up on what went before. Each new generation of mobile phone has a better camera, faster processor, is packed with more oomph.

This applies even when there are two-steps forward, one step back messes like the butterfly keyboards in recent Apple laptops.

As Ruddock points out, the problem with Chrome, the OS and Chromebooks, the computers do not appear to be moving in any direction.

Going nowhere

Chromebooks are not as clunky as they were, some are nice to use. But it isn’t going anywhere. The Chrome experience has barely changed over the years. There’s little prospect of it changing in the near future.

It’s stagnant.

Sure this might not matter to school students who need a fast, low-cost route to the web. It matters to almost everyone else.

Ruddock says there are aspects of Chrome life that amount to computing barbarism. He is being generous.

Sure, a MacBook or a Surface Book might cost getting on for ten times the price of a Chromebook. But the experience is on another plane. You can do so much more. It’s a struggle doing everyday work on a Chromebook, it’s a challenge being creative.


  1. Maybe not literally. But they often ask for information they have no right collecting ↩︎
  2. Although I doubt the average Chromebook users cares much for security or privacy ↩︎

Chrome on smartphone, tablet, PC, Chromebook

Robert O’Callahan makes the case for not using Google’s Chrome browser in Choose Firefox Now, Or Later You Won’t Get A Choice.

His argument is simple. He says:

Google is bent on establishing platform domination unlike anything we’ve ever seen, even from late-1990s Microsoft. Google controls Android, which is winning; Chrome, which is winning; and key Web properties in Search, Youtube, Gmail and Docs, which are all winning.

O’Callahan says there’s huge potential for lock-in and we’re already seeing signs of that with Google Docs. He warns Google is on track to dominate the internet and by extension, the world.

He also points out that Apple and Microsoft browsers are not true alternatives as the two companies are both chasing the same goal as Google.

O’Callahan, a New Zealander, is hardly a disinterested observer, he is part of the Mozilla team behind Firefox. He jokingly says Mozilla is the least likely of the four mentioned to establish world domination.

Let’s put Apple and Microsoft to one side — it’s debatable these companies seek to dominate online in the way Google does.

O’Callahan’s point about Google shutting down choice is valid. We’ve seen Google act high-handedly with Reader, the RSS feed software. The company entered a crowded space, dominated the market, then shut down a popular service after launching its proprietary Google+ service to occupy a closely related niche.

And the picture at the top of this story — it comes from Google’s Chrome download page — hints at the idea of domination.

Chrome remains a marginally better browser than Firefox. I find it faster — although not so much faster that it makes a meaningful difference. But the features that make it more useful than Firefox are features that are worrying from the Google world domination point of view. Being able to sync Chrome settings across devices and better integrated search are clearly steps on the path to lock-in.

Writing in the National Business Review, Chris Keall reports Clare Curran’s comment that 40,000 government computers are still running Windows XP (no longer online).

If true, and give or take a few machines it is, it is a ridiculous state of affairs.

Put aside for a moment the security risks and the NZ$2 million paid to Microsoft for extra support. Government employees simply can’t be fully productive if they rely on a 13-year-old operating system.

One solution would be to write off all the existing computers and replace them with Chromebooks.

You can pick up a decent Chromebook for NZ$400. No doubt a government buying 40,000 at once could get a discount on that price. Even at full price that would only be NZ$16 million. Or $14 million after cancelling Microsoft’s next support cheque. The old kit could be recycled or distributed to low-income families to reduce the digital divide.

There would be immediate savings. Chromebooks can’t run Microsoft Office. Government departments can shift to Google Apps.

Although the list price is US$50 per user per year, Google would sharpen its pencil to win 40,000 customers and go further to have the NZ government as a feather in its cap. A government with 40,000 seats to equip could also nail Google to floor over terms concerning data security or even building a node here as a condition of the deal.

And if Google doesn’t bite, there’s always Microsoft’s excellent Office 365 which works just as nicely on Chromebooks. That would have the advantage of being familiar and not frightening staff or requiring extra training.

Moving to wi-fi equipped Chromebooks would free up kilometres of cable from government offices. With copper trading at US$7000 a tonne it could raise a little extra cash too. And think of how tidy those desks would look.

There are other potential savings. Chromebooks require little management compared to everyday PCs. Which means:

In an ideal world government bosses could put all those IT geeks to work solving problems and being more creative than telling workers “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” In the real world, that’s likely to mean further cost saving and recycling the IT workers into private industry where they’ll be able to boost company productivity. There are other advantages. As Rod Drury points out:

He is right about that.

While we’re on the subject of Rod Drury, there’s another point. Moving to Chromebooks forces everything to cloud computing. This means massive infrastructure savings. Getting all government employees and applications into the cloud means there will never again be a situation like 40,000 computers using out of date software.

It also creates economies of scale that will make it worthwhile building onshore data centres to deal with the workload. It may be enough to encourage Amazon or Microsoft Azure to set up here — which would be good news for other local users. I’d love to see those two companies in a competitive pitch to win the contract.

Most of all, there are the productivity gains to be had from moving to the cloud and the wider cultural change that will bring about. Drury is right about collaboration and services like one-click hangouts, but that’s just the start. As Drury’s Xero business has proved, you can do everything in the cloud.

Presumably some people are going to pick holes in this argument. Well, that’s what the comments are for. Fire away…

Apple Microsoft Google

Apple mapped the direction its technology stack will take at last week’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC).

In Apple’s world, PCs are distinct from smartphones and both are different from tablets.

Apple offers different devices for different parts of your life. Smartphone when on the run, tablet when on the sofa, PC when at a desk or whatever else you choose.

With Apple each device class plays its own role. Hardware, software and user interfaces are optimised to take advantage of the differences.

Apple aims for integration

Apple calls this continuity.  While each device offers a different experience and there are different user interfaces, you can move smoothly between them.

This already works to a degree with Apple kit. However Apple upped the ante at WWDC announcing changes to make for even smoother handoff as you move from one device to another.

One other thing is clear. Apple sees mobile phones as central, tablets and PCs are, in effect, secondary. This means you’re going to need an iPhone to get all the benefits of owning other Apple kit.

Microsoft puts PC centre stage

Microsoft’s technology centres on the personal computer. Or, perhaps, whatever the PC becomes next.

What that means in practice is Microsoft tablets and phones are extensions of the Windows PC. The Windows you see on a desktop PC is the same, or almost the same, on a Microsoft tablet or a Windows Phone.

Microsoft talks about being consistent. 

When you use Microsoft kit you can move smoothly between devices because they all look and run in much the same way. You only need to learn how to use one user interface. Up to a point, all the skill gained with one Windows device is instantly transferable to other Windows devices.

Apple, Microsoft roots

The contrasting philosophies stem from each company’s history.

Apple’s success came after realising a phone could do 90 percent of what PCs can do. It may not sell as many iOS phones as the massed ranks of Androids, but it dominates smartphones in other ways.

It also dominates the tablet market. Putting its most successful product at the core of its strategy is understandable.

Likewise, Microsoft dominates PCs. While personal computers are not growing, they are not heading for immediate extinction. Microsoft aims to have them evolve into something new.

It makes sense for Microsoft to come at 2014 technology from a PC-centric point of view.

There is no clear right or wrong here. Apple and Microsoft offer two distinct visions. They could end up at the same destination while travelling on different paths.

Triangulating Google

Apple and Microsoft have been strong in hardware and software. Services sit at the third corner of the modern personal technology triangle. That’s where Google comes from, Apple and Microsoft are only now picking up momentum in services.

Google beats both with its services. Google search, mail, online collaboration and so on are central to the company’s offering. It is a relatively late entrant into hardware and software.

For now, Google is the dominant name in personal cloud services. Because all the hard work is done remotely on massive server farms, Google sees hardware and client software as secondary. It leaves most of the hardware part of its world to partners.

Choice

It would be wrong to see any one of these three strategies as better. They represent choice and your choices are clearer today than they were even six months ago.

It’s possible the three companies will diverge. It’s just as possible they’ll converge.

It sounds contradictory, but I expect a little of both. By that, I mean if one company gets a clear upper hand in any area, the other two will move to counter the threat.

Alternatively a fourth player could come along and upset the balance of power.

Either way the market is dynamic. My analysis is just a snapshot in time. It’s unlikely things will look the same 18 months from now let alone five years.

Google Chromebox

Google’s Australian-written “New Zealand” blog gushes about the company’s Chromebox for meetings which is officially on sale from today.

The product includes Asus Chromebox hardware, a camera, a microphone and a remote control. It uses the Chrome operating system, Google Hangouts and Google Apps.

Google tries to convince New Zealanders the product is good value:

…That means for the same price that companies have typically paid for one meeting room, they’ll be able to outfit 10 rooms.

Which may be true if you usually splash out on gold-plated kit. However, the New Zealand deal is nothing like as good as the one Google gives its American customers.

Google’s New Zealand price for Chromebox is NZ$1700. This compares with the US price of US$1000 — NZ$1160. Even allowing for 15 percent GST, that means there is a mark up of nearly 30 percent.

Video conferencing is set to take off in New Zealand as fibre rolls out around the country, would you choose Google’s Chromebox over the alternatives at this price?