Sunday, May 15, 2011

Myths and Misunderstandings of Chromebooks

When the iPod was launched, pundits immediately compared it to the existing mp3 player market. It was too big, too expensive, not powerful enough, and lacked the features other players had.

Then, when the iPhone was announced, a similarly sounding chorus declared its deficiencies, some of which I detailed here in 2007 It had no MMS, no swappable battery, no 3g, etc. Oh sure, there were other smartphones on the market that had a much longer list of features and were even cheaper, but it didn't matter. Paul Buchheit covers this "more features = better" philosophy here.

Now, Paul is somewhat pessimistic about Chrome OS, which I disagree with, but what's interesting, is that some of his arguments against Chromebooks I actually used myself when the iPad came around -- If already have an iPhone, and a Macbook Air, why do I need this tablet thingy? It sucks for content creation, and if I already lug around my notebook, why would I lug this thing around in addition? I was wrong, because there are times of the day where you need to create content, and times when you simply need to consume it, and tablets are perfect for the latter. More on that divide later.

The parallels today are appearing again. At $349, Chromebooks are too expensive compared to Netbooks at the same price level! Netbooks had been tried before, and failed! With Windows 7 basic or whatever, on a Netbook, you have far more flexibility and features! If someone already has a tablet, and a notebook, why would they want a Chromebook! And so on. There may be some merit to those arguments, but at iPad launch, the idea that a third kind of device wasn't needed also had merit. After all, tablets had been tried before and failed. We now know there was a market need.

Content creation vs Content Consumption

Where I disagree with Paul and others, is that even a souped up tablet is not a good stand-in for a work device. Perhaps with a large external monitor, and external keyboard and mouse, but as tablets constructed today, I would not want to write code on them, or even long blog articles like this. Perhaps it's my generation and young people won't have such hangups, but my generation is still a large market.

Thus, I assert, the need for a traditional WIMP device: physical keyboard, mouse, connection for monitor. I don't think enterprise IT would really find this controversial. So the next question is, why would a Web-only device be better than one with "native apps".

Myths about Chrome

In Paul's message on Chrome OS, he rightly sees that Android is becoming more "webby", but does not comment on the fact that the Web is becoming more "natively". What is the difference between an offline, cached, Chrome Web Application, that uses file system APIs, and WebGL, and a Android app, other than the fact that one is written in Java and uses Java APIs, the other is written in JavaScript and uses Browser APIs? Is Angry Birds Chrome really that much different than Angry Birds Android?

The principle difference between Web, Flash, and Android, is merely the difference in virtual machine, programming language, and API flavor. With Chrome, you have V8 as the VM, JavaScript as the source language, and HTML5 as the API to the VM. With Flash, you've got Flash VM + Actionscript3 + Flex APIs. With Android, you have Dalvik, Java, and Android APIs. All three have APIs for UI, 2d/3d, sound, network, etc. All three platforms have "web-like" install/update models, and all three have webby sandbox security models.

Well, you say, Android has NDK. To that I answer, Chrome has Native Client.

Well, you say, Android is Linux. To that I answer, so is Chrome OS.

Well, you say, Android doesn't force every app be a "document". To that, I point to Bespin and Angry Birds.

The conceptual gulf just isn't that big folks.

Other Myths overheard

  • If I'm not online, I can't do anything!

    Not true, Web apps can be offline. Chromebooks have local storage which can act as a sync repository/cache. It will depend on how apps are written. It's really no different than iOS/Android.

  • Everything is in the cloud, Google can read everything.

    Conditionally true, depending on the app, data can be encrypted on the server with only the client app able to view it

  • I can't access some critical windows apps

    True in some cases, false in others, see: Citrix, VNC, X

So if they're the same, why not just merge the platforms?

That may very well happen someday, who knows. But I do want to take issue with a point Paul made about the webby-ness of iOS/Android apps, because I think it is only true in theory, much like (not not as severe as) Web apps being offline capable.

Assertion: Web apps encourage linkability and searchability more than native apps

While it is true that you can deep link into iOS or Android apps, how many times have you followed a link from Flipboard directly into a story in the HuffingtonPost app? Web apps by their nature, and by years of convention, make their location and state known. By contrast, if native apps have URL schemes to trigger deep links, they are not omnipresent in an Address bar, but typically custom and hidden and not easy to find. Web apps are composeable by links because of their relative transparency, and it is more difficult to achieve in a native app ecosystem. Such conventions may evolve later, but it requires vigilence by developers for the gradient is not towards such transparency.

This concerns me, because if every website becomes a custom app, the web-of-links will be broken, and even Page Rank will become less relevant. Granted, this is not an argument against merging, but it is in argument to preserving the current model of publishing information via a standardized document format as opposed to proprietary per-website native applications.

So why then, do we need Chrome OS?

Because 90% of what people seem to do this days, outside of games, can be done on the Web. If a user is spending almost all of their time running Web apps and NOT running native apps, why not construct a device that is stripped down and simplified to streamline exactly what he needs?

I hear you say, "but why not include Android as well?" But this gets back to "more features == better". Remember, the postulated user is one who spends most of his time browsing Sure, it sounds good to have all of these extra features and access to the wealth of Android Apps, but non-iPod MP3 players also sounded like a better value proposition compared to the iPod originally.

In particular, for old fuddie-duddie Enterprise users, a locked down device, centrally managed, with cloud backup, and no expensive IT department needed, sounds very viable.

The idea of producing a netbook, which boots up with Android OS and contains a *full, not chopped down* version of the latest Chrome, also sounds like a viable SKU for content-creation activities. It may very well be the winning formula as Paul indicates!

But Google's trying Chrome OS first and experiments are good. I don't think power users who want to run Crysis on high-powered windows notebooks, can dismiss it, nor can it be dismissed just because it doesn't include every feature and the kitchen sink.

Sometimes I just need a fast, convenient browser.

p.s. I'm also not sure, a future in which every website is a native app (all newspapers, all blogs, etc) that I will be able to find information as easily, or to extract, mashup, and link information as easily. The Web has its problems, but let's not throw it out because of smooth animations and sexy devices.

p.p.s. The separate evolution of Chrome as an OS in which you can do everything and to which apps can be targeted will be good for a merged Chrome OS/Android OS too, because it ensures the Chrome team will have to make Chrome as great as possible before that merge happens. If the merge happened too early (say, Chrome 1.0), then Dalvik would have been a crutch, and they probably wouldn't have improved it as much as they have. Right now, the idea of Web as an app platform is a forcing function for improvement.


Blogger Thomas Broyer said...

My only issue with Chromebooks is that they can only be "another device", just because I sometimes want to do some dev (eclipse, git, etc.) and my wife wants to play the Sims or prefers LibreOffice to Google Docs (she'd rather use MS Office actually). And by sometimes I mean less than once a month, but still!

I'd happily replace my 4YO laptop (with sluggish Vista and antivirus) with a Chromebook but I can't for the reasons explained above (and I'd have to change my printer for a Cloud Print compatible one, and probably have to change my cameras too), and 350USD is a bit too expensive for just an additional device. Because another device means I'll have to change my other laptop too someday: 2 devices indeed cost more than a single one.

As an aside, replace Bespin with Cloud9ide in your post, much more impressive!

3:08 AM  
Blogger Ray Cromwell said...

True, I don't think Chromebooks are for everyone, it depends on the situation. In my case, I always work on a desktop. I use my MacBook purely for meetings and home VPN access. Chances are I could replace it and wouldn't notice the difference since when I work from home, I dial into my Desktop and use NXClient remotely.

I sense this could very well be the situation of many in the corporate world.

Would your mind change, if the device cost $199 and was say, half the weight of a MacBook Air?

3:15 AM  
Blogger Thomas Broyer said...

For $199, maybe I'd buy one, because we only have a single computer at home, and 99% of the time there's only Chrome running (well, and MS Live Messenger, but I wouldn't miss it; 2 friends are on facebook so I could chat with them there, and I could convert my parents to GTalk).

In the weekend, I bring my professional laptop home so I'm not waiting after my wife is done chatting/browsing/playing, and a Chromebook would be "the missing device" I'm looking for; just not for $350... For that price, I'd rather replace the laptop with a new desktop (I bought a laptop 4 years ago but only ever unplugged it twice, to bring it to the kitchen for reading recipes or keep company with my wife as she was cooking)

I really don't care about the weight though.

3:26 AM  
Blogger Earthic said...

Simply adding another device which may suit a small number of consumers, while creating problems for others, is so passe.
What I want is for everything to be a la carte. I choose my tablet, my phone, and my work pc. Then I add my BT keyboard, speakers, exterior drives, etc. Done.

1:37 PM  

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