Monday, March 10, 2014

Are Chromebooks the Future of Computing?

I was recently pointed to this article on Tech Republic, which asks if Chromebooks are the future of computing. I’ll come back to that question in a bit, because I want to address the larger, more encompassing one first - are lightweight, web-centric operating systems the future of computing?

Haven’t we been here before?

Let me preface the rest of this post by saying that I’ve been in this industry for some time now - almost 25 years. I can remember when computers were machines that you had to get into via a terminal, such as VT100, often over a dial-up line. Then, along came the desktop computer, popularized by the Apple II and IBM-PC, and the tech press of the time trumpeted that individual personal PCs were the "computers of the future". And for a while, the pendulum swung away from mainframes, and personal PCs ruled.

And boy, did they rule. Just about every electronics company had their own PC: Texas Instruments (Bill Cosby was even their spokesman), Atari, Panasonic, Commodore, Acorn… the list is too long to enumerate here. Eventually, though, there was a shakeout, leaving just Apple and the PC clone industry.

Then the web came along, and the pendulum started to swing back toward server-centric computing, with the client (in this case, a browser) playing a lesser (though still significant) role in the user's computing experience. The idea of having apps and data accessible from almost anywhere once again became vogue, and we even had a massive investment bubble to go along with it.

Here we are once again though, with personal devices delivering a very rich, local computing experience while connected via a cloud-backed service. Today's devices, whether they are iPads, Android tablets, or laptop PCs, work great when offline but truly shine when connected.

That, I think, is the far more important lesson to be learned here rather than whether one platform or another is the "future of computing." The key thing you need to focus on is the trend, not the current state of where things are.

What Do "Most People" Really Need?

Stop and think for a moment about what tablets (whether iOS or Android) do and how they work. They don't have a generally accessible file system in the sense of normal PCs. In fact, they don't have several of the characteristics of what you would call a traditional fully-featured computing device. Most of them aren't expandable, they don't have as much RAM as traditional laptops, there's no mouse, most don't have a physical keyboard, and yet these things are flying off the store shelves. Why? Because they perform almost all the functions that most people need on a daily basis, and they are great second- and third-devices to complement a home's primary computer. They send and read email, play games, take photos, play videos and music, compose documents, etc.

Now, wait a second - don't most of those characteristics sound like Chromebooks? The only difference was that most apps were Web apps, but that all changed last September when Google added the ability to install local, offline-capable native apps on Chromebooks.

When Chrome Apps happened, the last real remaining barrier to Chromebook adoption fell away. The Web is always introducing new features, and since Chrome updates every 6 weeks, a Chromebook owner always has the latest runtime and all the new features to go with it. Developers don't need to wait very long for end users to have the capabilities to run the latest apps, and since Chrome also runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, the addressable market is huge.

Back to the question

So, are Chromebooks the "future of computing"? I don't know, and I don't think anyone else knows for sure, but what I do know is that consumers have clearly voted in favor of computing that is simple, secure, always-up-to-date, and works wherever they are. Tablets clearly fit that bill, as do modern smartphones, and increasingly, so do Chromebooks.

"Ah", you say, "but didn’t we go through the era of the netbook once before?" My answer to this is simple - Chromebooks aren’t netbooks. Again, let's go back to what made the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad super-successful: the ecosystem. People don’t buy "devices" anymore. They buy ecosystems. Consumers want to know that if they buy a particular platform they won’t need to worry about whether it will be supported or whether they can get what they need for it - both in terms of software and accessories.

The main problem that netbooks had was that there was no ecosystem - there was no central software store, no predictable update schedule, no place to bring your device when it was on the fritz, and your friends had different machines so it was hard to share their content.

Chromebooks don't have any of those problems. There's a full, rich ecosystem in the form of the Chrome Web Store, the Web itself, and even Google Play (Chromebooks can play all your Play content like movies and music). There's a set of big, established players supporting them. Content is now vastly standardized, and all your favorite Web apps work just fine (Chromebooks even support Flash, without the security hassles).

Now, sure, they aren't for everybody - but neither were the earliest personal PCs. You had to be a pretty savvy user back in the days of the IBM-PC and even the Apple II. Chromebooks don’t yet fit the bill for people who need to do heavy development or who need to run complex systems, but all of that is just a matter of time. Remember - a lot of the criticism you hear about Chromebooks was similar to what was leveled against Gmail ("no enterprise would ever use that!") and Android ("that ecosystem is way too fragmented!") and Google Docs ("it’s not Office!").

The future of computing is one in which the user is the center, not the device. Operating systems that get out of the way, not ones that insert themselves between you and your work. Simplicity, not complexity. Security, not anti-virus programs. So far, Chromebooks fit all of those. But even if Chromebooks themselves turn out not to be the "future", the directional trend itself is pretty clear.

Don’t be the frog in the pot

Before closing, I want to remind everyone about the parable of the boiling frog. The story is simple, for those of you that haven’t heard it - essentially, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it jumps out right away. But heat the water gradually enough, and the frog will slowly boil to death, unaware of the drastic changes in its surroundings because of the slow nature of the change. The story is somewhat apocryphal, but it’s an apt metaphor for people who aren’t willing or able to notice the changes around them and adapt.

With that in mind, consider the following timeline:

  • 4 years ago, Chromebooks didn’t exist.
  • 3 years ago, Chromebooks were just a curiosity. Back then they didn’t even have a proper desktop or windows - only browser tabs. Many people wondered what they would ever be useful for.
  • 2 years ago, Samsung’s Chromebook suddenly started dominating Amazon’s top-seller list, and Google announced that over 2,000 school districts had adopted Chromebooks. People said "well, for some consumers they make sense, and schools clearly benefit from these devices, but they’re not for mainstream users."
  • Within the last year, Chromebooks were in over 5,000 schools, the Pixel was demonstrating what a high-end Chromebook could be, there were 3 new OEMs making Chromebooks, and you could buy them in a variety of mainstream stores. Oh, and Microsoft finally took notice and decided to start advertising against them.
  • Today, 6 of the top 15 best-selling laptops on Amazon - almost half - are Chromebooks. Every single OEM that makes a PC has now signed on to produce Chromebooks. Even HP, whose CEO Meg Whitman has said "Chromebooks have surprised us", is now making two models (so far!). There are new Chromeboxes on the way, and even enterprises are starting to replace their existing PCs with ChromeOS devices. The Chromecast, which runs a simpler ChromeOS, has literally taken off.

Focus on the trend, not the current state of the world. The water is starting to boil, folks.


  1. Well put! I am a student and also a web developer. I use my Chromebook for both purposes. Google drive acts as my file system for projects of both endeavors. And because of this, I ALWAYS have collaboration should I need it. With a few extensions added, Chrome is a perfect IDE as well as a superb compatible browser for web sites that use flash. I also plan on buying my mom one soon. It will be so nice to know that ALL she has to do is turn the thing on and it will work.

    1. I didn't go into that angle much in my post, but just the time savings alone from not having to do tech support work for my family members who use a Chromebook has been more than worth it. Perhaps that deserves a post of its own.