As most of you know, some time ago Google sent along to me one of their Cr-48 computers, the computer being a test bed to try out Google’s Chrome operating system, in which nearly everything one does is cloud-dependent — that is, in order for it to work, you need to have Internet access all the time. I tried using the Cr-48 to write a novel, with limited success (by which I mean I eventually gave up and migrated the novel to my desktop), and have otherwise used it as my primary laptop, with a bit more success. Now is a good a time as any to catch you all up with my thoughts on the computer and the Chrome OS, and cloud computing in a general sense.
1. First, on a personal note, I have decided that the form factor of the Cr-48 is just about perfect for me, in terms of laptops. I have a 10-inch Acer netbook, which is nice for traveling but really is a little too small in terms of screen real estate, and a 15-inch Toshiba which is nice on a desk but less so on a lap. So the Cr-48, with a 12-inch screen and weighing in at under four pounds, is very much in a sweet spot for me: large enough that I don’t feel like I’m virtually hunched over, light enough that carrying it around won’t give me bursitis.
2. I also very much like the way Google has configured the keyboard, and I think laptop manufacturers should take a look at what Google has done here. In particular, replacing the All Caps key with a search function key now means there’s a large key on the left side of my keyboard that I will actually use, rather than get annoyed with when I accidentally hit it instead of “shift.” The top row of function keys are also nicely reimagined and generally more useful to me than the function keys on other laptops. I do understand that I can remap the keys on most computers these days to do what I want them to do, but people who are not complete nerds and don’t want to geek around remapping their keyboards would probably appreciate the changes Google has implemented.
3. I find the Chrome OS nicely implemented, in that it stays out of one’s way, and what it does, it does well. It’s got relatively few tricks (more on that) but the tricks it has are nicely done. And I have to say I really like the fact that it is almost instantly on — after working with Chrome, going back to waiting for Windows 7 to boot up on my Acer netbook feels like waiting for a train of slow-moving snails to pass by so I can get to work. “Instant On” is, basically, the way a laptop experience should be, end of discussion.
4. BUT. At the end of the day, I have my doubts that a cloud OS is going to be the way to go. I see two major problems.
First, with Chrome OS, at this point in time, there’s not enough there there. You do have Google’s suite of online apps, which range from excellent (GMail, for me) to not quite there (Google Docs, which is fine for small projects but is not wholly baked when it comes to writing long-form work), but after that it gets sketchy fairly quickly, with the iffy Chrome Web store with its equally iffy apps. As a practical matter, you have to rely on online-based programs and applications, and as good as many of them are, if you’re a power user in one or more fields (in my case, writing and image editing) then you’re going to miss the features of powerful computer-resident programs and/or will quickly get annoyed with inherent speed/access issues involving sending information and instructions up into the cloud and waiting for the response.
Which is the second thing: A cloud-based OS might make excellent sense for someplace like South Korea, which has a magnificently speedy online infrastructure, which blankets the entire (relatively compact) country from one end to the other. In the United States (and Canada), where the broadband wireless and wifi access is relatively slow and full of all sorts of holes, gaps and dead zones, what you end up having is a computer that may or may not be a paperweight a non-trivial portion of the time. To its credit Google addresses this by having a Verizon radio built into the computer, which one can activate and have access to 100MB of free data over the Verizon network. But this really is the computing equivalent of one of those tiny spare tires that you’re supposed to drive on only long enough to get to a repair shop.
Personally what I end up doing, if I’m not near a wifi signal, is tethering the Cr-48 to my Droid X, which is a wifi hotspot. But even that is contingent; a hotel I was in recently apparently lined its room walls with lead, for all the signal I was able to get out of the place. If you’re not online with the Cr-48, you’re not doing much.
So in the end while I’m enjoying my Cr-48, I don’t really think of it as a fully functional computer. I think of it as an appliance to access the Internet, with a nice keyboard thrown in so I can type more easily than I can on the iPad (my other Internet appliance). I’ll take it with me when I travel, but only if I know I don’t have to do any really serious work outside of e-mail and posting online.
Which of course may be perfectly suitable for many if not most people — if your computer use is primarily wrapped up in e-mail, Facebook and finding things online, then a cloud-based OS might be awesome for you, not to mention the “instant on” joy that the Chrome experience provides. But I do actually use my computer for things besides being online. So for me, the Cr-48 and the Chrome OS aren’t there yet. I still need dedicated programs on my computer, accessible whether I have an online connection or not. Which is why I strongly suspect my next laptop computer will still have an “old fashioned” OS, and enough storage for the programs I need (and the files those programs create) resident on the machine.