Google Chromebook

Google & Samsung have announced the details of the first generation of Chromebooks – thin-client laptops running Google’s Chrome OS & reliant on a web connection for all of their capabilities. But can they succeed in a competitive market-place?

The Chromebook is a nice idea. Thin-client (cloud) computing is becoming (if not yet the norm) common-place in many corporate data centres; but (to date) it’s not really been a viable option for the home-user. Chrome OS changes that – by putting a cloud-based OS (and thin-client laptop) into the hands of home users.

The question is – are home user’s ready for cloud computing?

Google claim that the Chromebook can still be used without a constant network connection, because off-line versions of Google Docs, GMail, and Google Calendars. This will redress one of the major concerns – especially in the UK where the prevalence of wifi isn’t nearly as common as it could be. Even a 3G-based Chromebook won’t guarantee a network connection – especially when travelling by train.

The other problem with cloud-computing, is the question of whether people trust the cloud… Web-based email has been around for a long-time now, and (in fact) lots of people use webmail as their primary means of reading their email. This is the first example of cloud-services that most people will have experienced. We trust the internet with our email – since it’s intended to travel over the internet anyway… But do we trust the cloud – be it google or Amazon, or anyone else for that matter with our data? Our spreadsheets? Our banking records? Our letters?

And that’s a real question. It’s not at all clear if people do… Yes there are quite a few advantages to using a cloud (your data is accessible from multiple locations, it’s backed up, and it’s not dependant on any specific user’s hardware); but are these outweighed by the dangers  – and (perhaps more importantly) the perception of danger that comes from not owning one’s own data?

And then there’s the price…

At £350 for the wifi only Samsung Chromebook, these machines aren’t cheap. In fact, apart from the battery-life (claimed to be around 8-hours) they stack up pretty unfavourably when compared to cheap laptops. £350 will buy you a Windows 7 laptop, with hundreds of Gb of local storage; and the ability to run real applications.

Alternatively it’ll go a long way towards buying an iPad or an Android tablet; and it’ll be these, I think, that’ll be the main competitors for the Chromebooks (at least as far as home users go). Given the choice between a portable tablet with all-day battery life, and a laptop – with less capability & (arguably worse usability for many tasks) – are people going to choose the Chromebook?

The US prices for the Chromebooks translate rather nearer to £250 – and at that price (less than £300) the Chromebook becomes a very different prospect; but at £350, its a far harder choice.

Now none of this means that Chromebooks won’t be successful. For business users (especially small to medium sized businesses) already using Google Apps, Chromebook can be a great platform; but for home users – where there’s so much competition – I think it’s going to come down to the price…

The end of the paperback?

I’ve just taken delivery of a device, which I believe, will mark the end of the paperback book as we know it: the Amazon Kindle.

Electronic books aren’t exactly new.  E-readers of various types have been around for some time now – but never before have they had quite the flexibility & performance of the latest Kindle.

The single most important, and most striking, aspect of the Kindle is it’s fantastic eInk display.  For the presentation of text (importantly – and I’ll return to that thought later on) I can honestly say I’ve seen nothing better on any device.  It genuinely looks as if it’s a fake, a display model – where the screen has been replaced by someone pasting on a sheet of paper with some words laser printed on it!  Simply put, it is the screen that made me fall in love with the Kindle.

Now, I have to say, before we move on that I am not exactly what you’d call an avid reader – or at least, not of fiction. I very much suspect that most of the kindle sales are (still) to people with creaking bookshelves, and an appetite to devour novels on a daily basis.  That doesn’t describe me. I like to read fairly often: but not on a daily basis. I have a fairly full bookcase; but few fiction titles on it. So given this: why have I bought a Kindle?

Mostly it’s because I’m about to take two ten-hour flights in the course of a week – and I very much like to read when travelling (especially at airports!). Also, I’m fed up of either carrying a multiple books onto the plane: or running out of reading material halfway through the trip. Would I have bought the Kindle to use for general reading at home? No; but now I have one – and have used it – I expect to use it that way too…

So, given that I’m outside what I expect to be the main demographic for Kindle buyers, why do I think that it’s going to be such a fundamental change to the way that we read?

The best description that I can come up with for the Kindle is that it is the iPod of books: and I mean that in more than one way. Amazon have taken some excellent design, and cutting edge technology – and have produced a top quality product; much as Apple did with the iPod.  But as with the iPod, they’ve done more than that.  They’ve done what Apple did with the iTunes Music Store – they’ve made it possible, and easy, to buy content for and on the device.  In fact, Amazon have taken it one step further than Apple have with the iPod – in that the synchronization is wireless – and done (for free) over global 3G…  Of course, Amazon have it easy compared to Apple in that regard, because books are pretty small compared to music files & video… But this sort of wireless synchronisation of content is a great selling point. In fact Amazon even let you read their content on multiple devices – not just the Kindle. I can have a Kindle reader app for iPhone, iPad, Android devices, PC & Mac; and all of them automatically synchronise content.

So given that the device is a sure winner: is it the end of books?  Well, no.

There are a few problems with the device becoming the one and only way that one reads. The greatest of these is the fact that people (myself included) like physical books.  They like the experience of holding, and owning, books.  They like the smell and the feel of books; and they like the timeless permanence of the book.   A 500-year-old book is still every bit as readable today as it was when it was made … I fear the same will not be true for an eBook made today.

The other major problem with the Kindle is the fact that it’s screen (as great as it is), is black and white.  Now, depending on what you to do with the device, this is perfectly good.  If I’m reading a novel, or an essay, then it’s the words (and perhaps a few diagrams) that I’m interested in.  Most books to this day (especially paperbacks) are monochromatic: printed in simple black ink. For those sort of books, Kindle is ideal; but for all the other books – the kind with photographs (colour or otherwise), the kind with elaborate graphical typesetting, the kind where the use of colour is an integral part of the book … then really Kindle is not suitable.  But then those generally aren’t the sorts of books that people want to carry with them anyway…

So I fully expect (and hope!) that hardback books will be with us for a very long time to come.

But people treat hardback books, and paperbacks, very differently. Many people treat paperbacks as essentially disposable (read it, throw it away when you’ve done) – even if I find that somewhat abhorrent! Reading a paperback book isn’t about the experience – it’s about the content. The book, the physical pages and ink, is just a means to that end. Albeit that I’ve only read a few chapters with my Kindle so far, I am already convinced that the reading experience of reading with a Kindle is better than the experience of reading many paperbacks! (Especially the really cheap ones!)

There’s one other problem with the concept of eBooks in general: lending…

One cannot lend a friend an ebook (unless you lend them the whole reader) – because digital rights management (DRM) on the books prevent you from doing so.  The difficulty is that at present electronic files & DRM don’t really work quite like the real world… If I buy a physical book, and then lend it to a friend, then whilst it is in their possession I don’t have it.  That’s obvious. Of course, my friend could photocopy the book and then return it to me – and then we’d both have a copy – but that’s not really practical: and photocopies of books are of poor quality & hard to use.  The same is not true for an electronic book though.  As a mere datafile, I can copy it endlessly & perfectly.  Every copy being identical to the original. I don’t need to lend a datafile, I can copy it – that way we both have it.  DRM means that using clever encryption technologies these data files can only be opened by the person who bought it legitimately.  Preventing piracy, is important – I don’t think anyone (much) would argue against that; but DRM does mean that lending books is impossible; and that’s something which I think needs to change before the eBook will become truly ubiquitous…

For the paperback book to truly vanish, there needs to be a way to facilitate lending books (and selling second-hand books).  A way to ensure that each book sold can be read once (and only once) at any given time – but without limiting who is doing that reading…

This challenge notwithstanding, I really do think that the end is nigh for the paperback. And on the basis of my experience with the Kindle – it won’t be missed…

Why iPad isn’t a laptop killer…

There’s been a lot of comment about Apple’s new iPad – much of it very positive but not universally so

It’s Cory’s point that I want to talk about here.

Before I start, I have to “declare an interest” (as it were) – I am an Apple fanboy; I admit that – but that doesn’t (or at least, I hope it doesn’t, make me unable to take a more dispassionate and reasoned view).

I think that Cory is wrong – because he’s looking at the iPad as a computer…  It’s not; rather it’s the first serious & mass-market “web appliance”.

For as long as I can remember, the editorials in computing magazines have heralded the end “computing” as an activity for the chosen few – and it being for “the masses”.  Even long before my day, there were those who viewed innovations such as “high level languages” as opening up computers for the man in the street.

Sadly, and also for as long as I can remember, those same editorial columns have also been full of stories telling us that computers are just too hard to use.  Even the advent of the GUI, and with the uptake of internet use in the last fifteen-years, mass-market sales, hasn’t really helped.  You still read columns pointing out that washing machines don’t need you to reinstall their operating system every eighteen-months because they’ve gotten a bit slow…

Apple have a great track-record of spotting, and filling, niches in the market (albeit not generally by being the first to do something – but by being the first to do it right).  There were laptops before the PowerBook, MP3 players before the iPod, smart phones before the iPhone, and so-on…  With the iPad the niche is the one currently filled by Netbooks: except (in my opinion) that it isn’t quite that simple.  I don’t think Apple are going after the “ultra-portable” aspect of the market as such (though clearly iPad fits in there): but rather the “portable web browsing” aspect…

And there’s the clever bit; and there’s why Cory is wrong.  The iPad simply isn’t trying to be a “computer” in the sense that we think of them today.  It’s not a laptop without a keyboard – it’s something else entirely.  It’s an information delivery platform – not an information generation platform.  It really isn’t a laptop – but an overblown iPod Touch.  In short – it’s a web appliance.

People think about their computers and their phones different.  Until iPhone (with a few minor exceptions) people didn’t ever think about updating the system software in their phone.  It was what it was…  The iPhone changed that – and make the phone more like a computing platform.  The iPad’s form-factor accentuates this still further; but to think of it that way is to miss the point.

I believe that it’s been designed to be an appliance, in the way that a microwave oven is an appliance.  Yes, you still have to know how to cook to do anything useful with it – but you don’t need to be a radar engineer…

It’s the same with the iPad.  By controlling all of the variables – Apple have produced a device that will “just work”.

Now, none of this is to say that I don’t agree with Cory’s central tenet: that openness of systems is a “good thing”.  Of course it is.  But to apply that to the iPad – is to miss the point.  He writes:

“The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better…”

Well, no, okay.  That’s true.  But neither do I improve my fridge, or my TV, by “figuring out how it works and making it better”…

The truth is that over the last twenty-five years – the complexity of computers has increased exponentially (literally).  Someone keen and interested (with the right background and skills) could (can) understand how a late 1970’s vintage computer works – at the lowest possible level.  Indeed, you can even buy a (replica) of the Apple I in kit form: for home assembly.  But, with the best will in the world, no-hobbist can hope to build 2010 vintage iMac (for example) from scratch.  Miniaturisation and complexity have put pay to that.

This isn’t something that’s unique to computing.  Go back to the 1940’s or 50’s – and you’ll see that it wasn’t at all uncommon for enthusiasts to build their own radios.  Well, sixty or seventy years later – radio has given way to television as the mass-broadcast technology: and I don’t remember the last time I saw someone building their own plasma-screen TV from scratch…

The same is true with software too.  For all the myriad frameworks & libraries that exist today to make things “simpler” – they also (undeniably) add complexity.  Yes, using .net to write a Windows program is easier than writing that same program in C and calling all the APIs by hand; but even easier still is to write for the command-line…  GUIs make it easier to use computers – but harder to program them.

At the end of the day – most people don’t want to write their own code, but rather they want someone else to do it for them.

And, of course – for those that do what to write their own code: there will always be “fully fledged” computers… My suspicion though, is that the folks that buy an iPad instead of a computer – aren’t going to be the folks who want to write their own code.  The app store makes distribution easy – and safe: the installation process couldn’t be easier, and there’s no need to worry about virus and malware.  The lack of the ability to run just “any” code cuts both ways: it makes things safer, but it also limit what can be run to those apps “blessed” by Apple…  Is this a price worth paying?  For many people, honestly, I think it is.

And it’s not as if Apple are the first people to do this.  Take games consoles.  They are (arguably) the first home “computer-based” appliances.  Is there an outcry bemoaning the ability for individuals to write their own for their PS3?  No.  It’s just an accepted part of the way that these “appliances” work.  The iPad will be the same.

I think that the iPad has the potential to become the pattern for the future of computing for “the masses” (in the least pejorative sense of that phrase).  Yes, people will always want fully-fledged computers for “heavyweight” applications – but for mail, web browsing, and the like – I believe that the appliance approach is the way forward: and that iPad is at the vanguard of this coming trend.