Editorial: (Ch)rome Total War

I finally got my hands on a CR-48 running the new Chrome OS from google and have had the opportunity to put it through its paces. If you don’t know what the CR-48 is, I’ll leave it to others to explain. By now, if you’re the type to be plugged into tech news, you’ve read a thousand and one reviews of the OS. I don’t want to just parrot other reviews. You can enter a simple query into Bing or Google for CR-48/Chrome OS reviews and you’ll be satisfied in that regard. But let’s be honest, by now, you’ve read them all.

The purpose of this write-up is a bit more nebulous, far less structured. I wouldn’t so much call it a review as a collection of thoughts on the device, service and implications to computing. First off, one thing you may not know quite yet is that the new batch of CR-48s being shipped out contain fancy-schmancy new decals to make the stark but gorgeous device look pretty. Image after the jump, the onslaught of Chrome OS begins, the beginning of the end of computing as you know it! Everything is about to change!

Sizing Up The Beast

Nah, I’m just kidding with you guys. Just trying to sound dramatic about something that I’m frankly a little bored with, though I’m impressed. As mentioned above, there’s little purpose in a review treading over already covered ground. Furthermore, there’s little reason to review the hardware which is largely irrelevant, in this case, to the final product. I will however say that this is one delightful piece of hardware. I would advise Inventec to continue to produce these on the cheap and put them up for sale to hobbyists. I spent nearly the first hour just drooling over the sleek and sexy look. It has a solid rugged feel and a heft to it that makes it seem invincible. I would have babieswith this machine.

Just as Google guessed, I haven’t missed the caps lock key, but to be fair, I haven’t had the urge to be an internet warrior, correcting – with the force of mashed keys and certitude – some stranger on the internet whose only sin was being wrong in such an epic way that I must regulate. Also, I’m not 15. That said, I’ve also had little use for the search key. Perhaps it’s a function of time and I’ll find uses eventually. For now it remains lonely. The “equal” key on the other hand has been getting a lot of love. It feels like it’s where the backspace key should be. Beyond that, to hell with talking about the hardware. This is a test unit. Let’s talk about what matters.

What Does it Mean?!?

Simply put, I haven’t the foggiest. What is Google’s plan exactly? Yes I’ve read and watched the propaganda, I know the words almost by heart right now, but I’m a man caught between a rock and a hard place. Chrome OS does nothing for my PC lust. It simply misses too much. It is an adequate substitute for a netbook but not a laptop. I know this sounds silly since it technically is a netbook, but Google positions it as an answer to the dominance of Windows, but this strategy rides on one massive fallacy: netbooks were never a threat to real PCs. The majority of netbook users fall into one of two groups: first time users, and cheap alternatives for power users- when they don’t need the full effect. What’s far less common is people abandoning traditional computing for netbooks. Chrome OS is innovative, but isn’t something that should get beyond beta.

The OS falls into a strange position, one that people incorrectly thought the iPad would fall into. Chrome OS falls between the traditional computing and the mobile computing world. It is born of a mentality that has driven the development of smart phones but lacks the nimbleness and usability. It’s the product of a philosophical and not a financial bet. That bet is that users are classified not by function but by time spent and this unfairly weighs value of software in the direction of the browser. But let’s step away for a moment and look at computing as a monolithic system consisting of all the computing tasks we perform. That means we accept no separation between phone, tablet and pc as computing devices, then re-tabulate the time spent and a remarkable thing happens.

With PCs alone, the majority of our PC time is spent doing things on the web or doing things that could be done on the web, but that amount of specific browsing time drops nearly to zero when tabulated on our phones. We spend so much time on those pocket devices that when all our computing time is added together, that initial 60% time spent in our browsers, drops to a more meaningful {insert: completely unproven and nonsensically made up} guestimation of 20%. This of course takes into account only the casual Joe and not the task specific users whose jobs require the majority of time offline. Be clear that when I refer to going online, I mean specifically in the browser.

That’s where I think Chrome OS makes the wrong bet. The rise of smart phones and tablets, plus the increasing infestation of smart phone like environments into the PC universe shows that users are task oriented and yes, by task, I am referring to apps. I can here the argument already, mainly because I am just a little bit bonkers and I hear voices as a matter of course in my head, but hear me out. Google agrees with me. Google agrees wholeheartedly with me and they have said it loudly and clearly in their massive Magnum opus called Android. In fact, Google seems determined to make us all forget about Chrome OS and are doing their very best to bury it.

Paranoid Android

That’s the elephant in the room isn’t it? Android. Am I the only one who gets the sense of schizophrenia and impending madness in Google every time it starts talking about Chrome OS? Can you blame me? “Android is the future, Android is life, Android is the future, but look over here at Chrome OS, a paradigm shift.” Quit playing Google. The essential question that needs to be answered is, does Chrome OS want to be a better netbook (which has decided it will not supplant the PC), or does it want to supplant the PC? If it wants to supplant the PC, listen, get the fuck out of my face, let’s just end the conversation right here. However if, as I suspect, it intends to be a better netbook, we have a much more interesting strategic question to ask. Should Android be paranoid?

Let me be clear, Android has zero, zilch, nada to fear from Chrome OS. What I’m trying to say is that netbooks are not at war with PCs, netbooks are at war with Tablets. Netbooks have been at war with tablets since before they came in the slate form factor. This is a war that predates the iPad because this was a war against phones that no one realized was happening. I believe the battle lines have to be redrawn. Tablets and phones on one side, PCs on the other, and netbooks as the jackasses standing in between. As industry data has shown, in the second half of 2010, following the release of both the iPad and the Galaxy Tab, it was the netbooks that suffered and not the PCs. In fact, Tablets will continue to eat the netbook’s lunch and we may be witnessing the twilight of that… um… interesting blip in the computing industry. Will netbooks continue to sell? Yes, Office Depot still sells fax machines. But their prices will have to drop further since already, the price difference between netbooks and full notebooks is too small to make it worth it. On my desk at this moment, there are a $575 notebook and a $400 netbook and an older $1200 notebook. The $1200 notebook is a level of power that phones, tablets and netbooks can only dream of for now, and the $575 notebook is perhaps 2 years ahead of netbooks, but the prices are so close that the netbook is, quite frankly, a con.

So netbooks are in trouble from both sides of the coin and there is one side they have no hope of beating so they must face the other, the Tablets, for supremacy. While Android is duking it out with iOS and WebOS, they will all be slowly killing Chrome OS. So what’s the point? Beta, that’s the point. Chrome OS offers an excellent platform to test some things that could empower the mobile OS’s to finally be a true threat to PCs.There’s already a race on the hardware front and mobile manufacturers are doing a better job of innovating, but the real revolution will be in function. Some of the greatest things are coming out of the Android team as well as the Android and iOS developers, but there are a few potential game changers we might be able to look forward to in Chrome OS.

You Are Not Your Computer

But you are increasingly your phone. I don’t use an iPhone, but I like it. I don’t use an Android phone because I like it. I use a Windows mobile phone. No, not WP7. The good old Windows mobile that everyone loves to hate. It’s sufficient for me at the moment, but I’ll be upgrading soon. The strange thing is, this phone is archaic and pathetic next to the processing power and capabilities of the modern smart phone but somehow, and I’m being sincere here, I am able to do almost everything I need Chrome OS to do, with my phone. It’s just faster on Chrome. This is an awe inspiring thought. It boggles my mind to think what I could do with a modern OS once I master it and become a power user like I am right now with WM6. So, thinking out loud, if I’m able to do all this (and more as they advance) on a modern mobile OS, and I have my workhorse PC for certain specialized tasks, what is the point of Chrome OS? What is the damnable point?

I don’t mean to beat it over the head, but that’s the fundamental flaw of this OS. What Chrome OS became is not what we had imagined. We envisioned what Android Honeycomb became. This doesn’t mean there aren’t things Honeycomb and it’s descendants can’t pick up from Chrome. The cloud computing paradigm makes far more sense in the mobile and tablet space than the desktop and notebook space. The idea of backing up your system or outsourcing some of your power requirements makes sense, but living in the cloud only makes sense on a device that is already useless if it isn’t able to stay connected. If anything, one particular failed mobile device sheds light on the extraordinary and natural way the cloud can enhance your mobile device. The ill-fated, and honestly quite awful, Microsoft Kin had one redeeming feature, Kin Studios. This is a rudimentary version of what Chrome OS does. I shudder to think of the awesome power of Chrome behind the scenes of a luscious treat like Honeycomb.

Let’s be honest, you might spend a lot more time on your computer, but you spend more time with your phone. As your phone becomes more powerful and more capable, you’ll find yourself drifting from your computer. Even a dinosaur like myself, rocking the unbreakable WM6, has grown distant from my laptop in terms of casual use since I got in the habit of checking email through my phone.

I need to make this clear. I’m not proclaiming the death of anything here. I’m not saying Chrome OS will die. It’s free and Google still has its cool. I’m saying it just isn’t that relevant and will never be more than a niche product unless manufacturers find a way to market it and create a need the way Steve Jobs did with the iPad. Lord knows Google won’t go out of its way to make it survive. So what do I want to see Google do with this betty?

Uncle Agrippa’s Wishlist

The first thing I want to see is a pow wow between the Android and the Chrome OS team. I want a plan to bring the two systems closer together until one becomes a mere extension of the other in different form factors. I’m not referring to them becoming a single OS. That would be nice but unlikely. I think more like the idea (though not currently the realization) of WP7 and Xbox Live integration. That is, fundamentally different systems that are able to inter-operate without much hassle and that can function as extensions to each other. I would like a world where I can take an unfinished task and connect by whatever way necessary to my system and have it continue to function as an app within the other system, or in its own sandbox without the need for configurations.

I want to see Chrome’s discreet updates ported to Android and superseding the nonsensical strictures placed on Android devices by manufacturers. Discreetly, periodically keep me on the latest OS to the extent that my hardware allows and without the effort or hassle of manual updates. Even the system of updating on iOS, while simple, is annoying. I’ve been spoiled by both Chrome the browser and Chrome the OS.

I want Android to take a lesson from Chrome OS and use software and the cloud to free me from the tyranny of hardware. Forget my memory card and my sim, forget the need (though the ability is nice) to encrypt my phone. I would like the ability to walk into my living room and pick up any phone I see, no matter who it belongs to, and for no better reason than that it matches my shirt, and know that with a single log in, it is mine with all contacts, messages and history intact. Of course I leave it to smarter individuals than I to figure out how to deal with deciding what device rings when there’s an incoming call. The primary use-case of that is of course purchasing a new phone anywhere and on any service and being up and running immediately.

I want Google to be the bigger man and go out of its way to create a means to seamlessly complete a task started on Android, in Windows, Mac or Linux. Actually, come to think of it, I want Google to stop leaving us Linux folks out to dry despite building an empire on us. Rude. I’d appreciate it if Chrome stopped sucking on Linux. But that’s another story. I’ll save it for a rainy day. Beyond that, I’ll be honest with you, I’m a bit teched out. I feel like I’ve been beat over the head with gadgets since the end of 2009. I’m satisfied to sit back and watch how this all plays out while, being the geek that I am, being a first adopter and beta tester of everything (except my phone).

So That’s it? That’s All You Got?

Basically, this whole write-up was a dead end. There is nothing I could have said or shown you that you haven’t already seen. There were no thoughts I could share that were particularly unique. I could have just given you a page of links to every other opinion. What did you expect from me? Those of us in the know have been playing with Chrome OS for over a year on our own hollowed out netbooks, and the system itself is so indistinguishable from the Chrome browser that the most it could elicit out of us was a yawn. Frankly, the most exciting part of this whole process was waiting for the CR-48. It was like Christmas, except in my case, Santa was late because he got pulled over for drunk flying and animal cruelty (Pro-tip, glowing noses aren’t natural on Raindeer, even magical flying ones).

I like it. In fact, I love it. Had it come out in the midst of the netbook craze, I would have purchased it in a heartbeat for the right price. I would have purchased it with about as much thought as replacing a broken phone. But it didn’t come out then. It came out during the height of Tablet-mania. It came out when a new device carved its niche and started rendering the netbook obsolete. I know it’s unfair to call netbooks a con. They are barely profitable for their manufacturers yet they are so expensive (relative to their capabilities). The cheapest units, often with subsidies from carriers, barely have the power of a phone and that renders them players in a field already occupied by large phones. Tablets came along and while we laughed at them at first, Steve Jobs showed everyone a use-case, gave it a purpose, optimized it for specific tasks and released it. Tablets have been a bane on the netbook because Tablets undress the humor in the netbook illusion. The iPad has equal screen real estate, equal power, and though much more expensive, it has the coolness effect. Don’t underestimate that. If Apple can sell it at a price, it means it can be made cheaper.

An interesting thing has started happening. Manufacturers are starting to treat netbooks as accessorized Tablets. They are taking the guts of a Tablet and giving them the netbook functionailty. That’s the inevitable path. While companies like Microsoft are losing market share, their sales are increasing because they are increasingly focusing on markets that have the need and the financing. The majority of Microsoft’s growth has been in its enterprise business. Many of us will always need the desktop, some of us will never fully give up our freedom. In fact, I strongly believe that there is a fundamental flaw in the cloud computing paradigm and that is the fact that there are these massive amounts of devices in the hands of individuals with an immense amount of power that can be used, so why outsource that computing power to the cloud.

That, at the end of the day, is why neither Chrome OS nor iOS nor Android will spell the death of Windows or Linux (Apple is questionable because of signs that Apple itself may try to kill the desktop). Simply put, it boils down to cost and energy efficiency. Cloud computing requires everyone to outsource all their computing power, using up so much bandwidth and so much energy, when there is so much available in the pockets of the individual, to reduce the load. The intelligence of the hive may be in the hive mind, but the power of the hive is in the swarm. The users and their billions of cellphones and computers are the swarm. Chrome has some excellent ideas, but it is a vision of ‘teh interwebz’ that is too far to one side. There needs to be a change in the current paradigm, an enhancement, but living in the cloud isn’t it. The changes are wonderful and cool and awesome. Google does it brilliantly with Chrome OS minus a few caveats, but we can’t all live there. I’m not saying we won’t have enough bandwidth and processing power to do it, we already do, and it’s only growing. I’m saying it’s a waste of available physical resources.

Perhaps my arch-nemesis, Opera, has the right middle path. Any power user of the Opera browser knows of one cool feature that became standard not too long ago. If you know how to use it, every browser becomes a server. Isn’t that a more sensible system? Every laptop, netbook, tablet and phone becomes a server, part of a swarm. Or have we decided to just turn our devices into pretty but empty husks with all decisions made by the grand nexus in the sky? No matter that it’s a waste of manufactured hardware. I don’t want to live in the cloud, I want to BE the cloud.

Chrome OS gives us only the verisimilitude of freedom while enslaving us to the two companies that colluded to betray us in the fight for net neutrality. Can you tell that this whole write-up is just one big rant cleverly (but barely) wrapped up as a review? Allow me to reiterate. From an objective standpoint, I love Chrome OS. I love what it hints at, the murmurs of the future. I love that I feel cutting edge with this betty. It’s a beauty no matter how you cut it, and I can switch to using it full time. Almost everything I do at the moment is handled quite nicely, or I can learn to adapt. My criticism is on the philosophical bet that Google made, and the fact that they went ahead and bet against themselves by pursuing Android so aggressively. In their defense, the environment changed between when they mapped it out and when this was released, and by betting on Android, they made the right choice. That makes Chrome OS either an expensive hobby or a brilliant test platform.

For me, Chrome OS is my travel companion now. It’s convenient enough for youtube and email, the webstore has more things than I could have hoped for and I am honestly happy with it. More than likely, I will keep it permanently in my backpack and carry it around as often as I do my phone. A surprising thing considering my criticism. But what can I say, I’m a geek, it’s what I do. I love me my toys. I won’t be buying a Chrome OS device when it comes out, but only because I already have one :)

*sent from my awesome CR-48* ;)

2 thoughts on “Editorial: (Ch)rome Total War”

  1. About your wishlist, particularly the interoperability: Xbox links to Zune software which shares the library I've selected it to share. This includes the items that automatically sync with my phone when it's plugged in (charging, not to PC) for more than 15 minutes and has at least half a battery. So the other day, I took a picture with my phone, started charging my phone, then I turned on my xbox and set the picture as my background. BOOM. Roasted.

  2. That's how business should run. I love that kind of ease of use where I don't have to think about anything, I can just set the rules, go about my business and the details are square. I like my gear to not be fractured, but I don't want to have to buy everything from the same company.

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