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7/8/2011
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Larry Press
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Google Chromebook Isn't For Power Users -- Yet.

Time will tell if the Chromebook is like the early Mac -- or the Lisa.

BYTE -- You've heard about the Google Chromebook. This is a system that, unlike a regular desktop, boots right into a web browser.

Samsung and Acer are now selling Google Chromebooks.

With little local storage, Chromebooks operate with the assumption that you'll keep most of your data and documents online and use net-based applications like Google Docs.

Chromebooks cost about the same as low-cost laptops. They turn on quickly and they're always online. Google is pitching them to the education market, as well as to companies, and that makes sense. The closed nature of the Chromebook is ideal for uses like these.

Google says Chromebooks are for casual users, too. That isn't me. I use my computer as much to create content as I do to consume it. I do 99 percent of my work on a Dell laptop with a flash drive, which I carry between home and office and when I travel.

As I write this, I'm running the Google Chrome browser with 45 tabs open, plus an image editor with several images, Camtasia, a DOS command line, an email client, a Wi-Fi sniffer, an FTP client, several file browsers and MS Word and Powerpoint documents open.

I also am running various services. The most important one is the Web server.


Try this on a Chromebook.

Now a Chromebook would let me use the Web, do email, and run Google Docs or Microsoft Life instead of Word. But I need PowerPoint features that are only available on the Desktop version. Plus, network-based audio, video and image editing apps are way too slow for the way I work and what I do. I need my Web server and FTP client to test and transfer new material to my Web site.

So I'm not in the market for a Chromebook today. This is no system for power users. But what about tomorrow?

Things will change. A future Chromebook with a rapid connection to the Internet, a terabyte of flash storage and more CPU and RAM power isn't hard to envision.

That's when a net computer like the Chromebook gets interesting. Eventually, network-based programs will be as fast and powerful as today's installed applications. So unless new desktop software raises the bar significantly, I'd be willing to foresake Windows. The price needs to be right, though.

So does the timing. In the late 1990s, as a consultant to Hyundai, I recommended establishing a social network for vehicle owners. Hyundai said no. In retrospect, the execs there were probably right. Back then, there weren't enough Hyundai owners online for a network of Hyundai drivers to achieve critical mass. Plus, sharing information socially was a new idea. Today it is a no-brainer.

Hardware timing is critical, too. Often, software comes out before the hardware can take advantage of it. Graphical user interfaces like the Xerox Star, VisiOn, Windows 1.0 and 2.11 and Apple Lisa's software were out long before the appropriate hardware to support them was available at a decent price. The first Macs came out at just barely the right time, if you remember.

The Google Chromebook isn't right for me yet. But I could come around. Time will tell whether this first Chromebook is more like the first monochrome, 128K, floppy-disk based Mac or like its doomed predecessor the Lisa. It's up to Google to make the next move.

Based in Los Angeles, Larry is a senior contributing editor at BYTE. He's also a professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Follow him @larrypress or send email to lpress@csudh.edu

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