In his post: Network as Computer – Part 1, Dillon Hawkins detailed some of the history and concepts behind thin client computing. In Part 2, Dillon shared his impressions of Google’s implementation of the thin client model, called Chrome OS. This post is intended to provide an additional voice and — in some cases — an alternate perspective.
I, like Dillon, happened to be one of the lucky testers to receive a Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook. I was super excited for it and ready to get started. I booted it up, synced my bookmarks and was ready to go. The whole process only took a few minutes and I felt like I was home, everything was in its place. This speaks more to the power of the Chrome browser and the syncing technology that Google has built. This same technology, or at least the spirit of syncing, has really picked up in the last few years. In my mind, “network as computer” now relies less on a specific device but on a set of services that allow multiple devices to access the same personalized information.
While Chrome OS seemed to me a very ambitious idea when it was first announced, it has — in my opinion — taken a back seat to the Android operating system and the latest and greatest from Apple. The iPad and the recently upgraded iPad 2, has completely challenged opinions of what is possible without a full-fledged desktop computer. Netbooks helped pave the way, but they were easily crowded out by more advanced mobile phones and more compact laptops. Netbooks also gained traction over the last two to three years due to their low price and compact size. These cheap, underpowered devices offered an easy way for people to get online. Their low-power processors and budget hardware didn’t allow for much more than web surfing and light office work. For this reason, they were easily replaced by a somewhat lesser device (no physical keyboard, no camera, no real input or expandable storage options) that allowed users to do more than what they had previously thought possible.
Getting back to the Chrome OS notebook: I used it for a few days to catch up on RSS feeds, Twitter and Facebook, and watch a few YouTube videos. It is more than adequate at those tasks, but so is my Android phone. The lack of a Silverlight plugin prevented me from watching Netflix, but that’s what my TV + Xbox are for. My wife needed a computer to use while we were watching TV and I needed to use my real laptop for development, the Cr-48 was perfect for her. She needed access to Facebook, Google Reader, Blogger, etc. the Chrome OS notebook excels at those things. She has become the primary user of the “spy laptop,” as we call it, due to its matte black soft-touch finish with no markings. I had converted her to the way of Google Chrome a few months back, so she too was up and running with all of her bookmarks and settings within minutes. Life was good for the Chrome OS notebook, it got a solid few months of almost daily use from her, until she got an Android phone. It still gets fired up every few days for “normal” web browsing that doesn’t look so good on a small screen, but it has taken a serious back seat. I would probably use it more if I wasn’t always working on side-projects where I need real power and a non-browser-based IDE. I tried using it to teach lessons at church, but my phone proved more convenient, mostly due to its always-on internet connection. While the Cr-48 is limited to 100 MB of free 3G data each month.
Now, I’m not trying to make this post about how awful and inadequate the Cr-48 is, it is more than adequate at web browsing and has a long-lasting battery. It excels at those two points and I’m sure future devices will have faster processors and better trackpads, but the hardware itself doesn’t matter. Google has even released videos of them destroying poor helpless Cr-48s to illustrate that the device is not important because your data lives “in the cloud.”
If the device is destroyed, you don’t lose your data, just the mangled hunk of metal, plastic and silicon. I received a new laptop at work a few months ago — my third since starting — I had the easiest time setting it up and getting ready to start working. My work documents were stored in my company’s personal network space, my personal files were stored in Dropbox, Chrome synced up within a few minutes and I was ready to go, if it wasn’t for the increased processor speed and physical size difference I wouldn’t know I was on a different machine. It was amazing to me how little I needed to install or copy over to be comfortable and ready to work. The hardware doesn’t matter.
From what I’ve seen over the last year, I’d say that Chrome OS doesn’t have a chance up against the likes of Android, iOS, Mac or even Windows as a viable replacement for a fully-capable phone, laptop, or tablet. I love Chrome as a browser and really like the speed at which they are iterating and making it better. Hopefully soon, once the HTML5 spec has figured out its offline storage standard, we’ll be able to use a browser when not connected to a network.
As more things migrate to the cloud such as, Amazon’s CloudPlayer, Dropbox, Google Docs etc. the device I use is less important. The collaborating, and therefore syncing that goes on behind the scenes, makes these services leaps and bounds better than their desktop counterparts. Google’s introduction of Cloud Print with Chrome OS, Android, and iOS has eliminated one of the last hurdles to adopting thin client computing. Thin client computing isn’t a future dream that we have, it is here today. The network is the computer, the future is now.