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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 Wont 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 largely 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 stack 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.


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.

Continually jumping between different companies’ technology feels inefficient. Would it make sense to just pick one and stick with it?

To answer the question I spent a week working exclusively with each of the three main technology companies’ wares: Apple, Microsoft and Google. I wanted to see if this approach improves productivity and whether it is practical or limiting.

Efficient, but…

Each set of technology has its advantages. I’ll write more about that in another post.

The stacks also have common advantages.

Sticking exclusively with one stack means you learn all of its commands, tricks and nuances. Familiarity breeds productivity. As your knowledge of the stack deepens your work becomes faster. Quickly performing complex tasks involving more than one app can be automatic.

While none of the technology stacks are flawlessly integrated, in most cases the quirks and road bumps are easily dealt with.

It’s hard to walk past the efficiency benefits of mastering your tools. You will work better if you stick to just one stack.

So pick and stick with just one stack?

If your technology needs are relatively straightforward and narrow, you should be able to pick one stack, learn it intimately and reap huge productivity gains.

I certainly recommend employers and managers standardise on a single stack in a workplace.

More complex cases

This simple approach will work for most people most of the time.

However, many people have complex needs that may not be fully serviced by a single technology stack. In my testing I found minor limitations with the Apple and Microsoft stacks while the Google stack is much more limiting.

None of this matters for many tasks, but you’d certainly struggle to do creative work like web design if you stayed strictly inside the Google camp. In fact, most creative work means moving across the stack boundaries at times.

Cross stack integration

As I mentioned earlier, no company has flawless integration. They all do a good job most of the time.

If I were to put a number on it, I’d give Apple and Google nine out of ten. Microsoft loses an extra point because of the cognitive dissonance of switching between the Windows 8 Metro interface and the older, desktop interface.

Moving between stacks isn’t that much harder. Most apps will copy data from other stacks, although there are still a few glitches.

There are minor problems and inefficiencies moving between stacks. If we stick with the same scale, then on the whole cross stack integration would weigh-in at seven out of ten.

The real benefits of staying in one stack are more to do with learning how everything works than with integration.

Recommended approach

Based on my, admittedly unscientific, experiment, the smartest strategy is to pick a master stack, not an exclusive stack.

Choose one: Apple, Microsoft or Google. Plan a stack strategy. Buy your devices within the same stack. Stay with it when you upgrade. Don’t be tempted to deviate unless you plan to eventually move everything to the new standard.

Use the mainstream apps within the stack, such as iWorks, Office or Google Docs. Master the tools, learn all the tricks. Make working in the stack second nature.

Stick with it as far as is practical, but don’t be frightened of moving outside the stack when you need a different tool to perform a specific task. View your chosen stack as a neighbourhood, not a prison.

A week of Google-only working with an Android phone and a ChromeBook tests personal cloud computing.

Chromebooks are all about cloud. While they have local storage, ChromeBooks store most documents in Google Drive. Likewise, they don’t store mail messages locally but in Google’s Gmail service — in the cloud.

Mainstream cloud

Cloud computing is no longer strange or exotic. Many of us have used it for a decade. Longer if you consider Hotmail to be cloud.

My Gmail account started in 2004. Not long after I began using Google Docs.

Today I have active cloud accounts on Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, Dropbox and iCloud. All my work is stored in at least two cloud accounts as well as on A hard drive. There’s little chance of  losing everything at once.

ChromeBook extends cloud

There is nothing unusual about the cloud. With Windows, iOS or OS X, cloud is optional. Chrome OS has baked-in cloud. Google designed the operating system around the cloud.

Using a ChromeBook means moving from being a cloud visitor to being a cloud resident. It’s not a big jump.

Most of the time you don’t notice much difference from everyday computing. That changes if you have a poor internet connection or suddenly become untethered from the net. Even then, you can configure ChromeBook to run Google Docs, Gmail and other apps offline.

Cloud safest

Like all cloud computing, if anything goes wrong on one device, being able to pick up from where you left off on another device is powerful and reassuring.

Sure things now work this way with Apple and Microsoft technology – but they are relative newcomers to this style of computing. Google’s software on the other hand was born in the cloud.

Rough edges

Chrome OS has rough edges.

Two of these rough edges are almost too difficult to live with.

First; the local file manager. Most of the time you don’t need it. But if you want to edit a photo before loading it to a web site, you   download a local copy to work with. The file manager is crude and difficult to deal with. Once the storage starts to fill with files, finding an individual file is a challenge.

Much the same happens once you’ve downloaded more than a handful of Chrome OS apps. Often it is not easy to find the one you want.

During a week with the ChromeBook I used many tabs but never had more than one window open.

Android has improved

If Chrome OS isn’t polished, hope is Android-shaped. The last time I worked with an Android device, less than a year ago, it still had the same unfinished feel I found in Chrome OS.

At the time Android was clearly a generation behind iOS or Windows Phone. Since then it has sharpened up. The Sony Xperia Z1 I used during my Google technology week uses Android 4.2, there have been two upgrades since and Android is now on 4.4.

While Android 4.2 on the Xperia Z1 is still a less complete experience that iOS 7 or Windows Phone 8, the gap has closed considerably. In particular, there’s now tighter integration between Android and Google’s apps – and, by extension, with Google’s cloud services.

If you own an Android phone and commit to Google’s technology – it doesn’t have to be an exclusive relationship – you’ll find plenty to like and lots to make you productive.

Google-only verdict

When I started the Google-only week, I knew I’d get my work done. Yet, I worried there might be a productivity hit, or that I would bump against frustrations. There has been less of that than I expected.