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…