Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Chromebooks in daily use

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m a happy owner of an HP Chromebook and as previously a less happy owner of a different manufacturer’s offering.

I’ve been interested in thin clients since the mid nineties, but it’s always been something that was going to happen ‘next year’. Basically the problem was that the early NT derived solutions were hobbled by licensing restrictions and the later solutions, such as Sun’s solaris based solution were hobbled by not having a decent software base - this is of course why Sun bought Star Office, and indirectly why we have Libre and Open office today.

This is all so much ancient history. By the middle of the last decade we’d moved into a world where overwhelmingly applications and data were stored locally and if you were lucky backed up. The range of applications available was such that you could live and work on any platform and be independent of any central provision.

Now, while there had been some quite credible remote desktop solutions earlier, things changed when Google bought Writely and started being able to provide remotely hosted word processing and later spreadsheet and presentation services.

Google were not unique, there were some other competitors about such as Zoho, who are still with us.
At the same time Google started offering cheap storage and solutions such as Dropbox started to become available allowing syncing of content between devices.

This meant that manufacturers such as Asus could come out with low cost computers such as the 701SD, that while they had local applications could be used primarily as web access platforms using google docs, gmail and the like.

Such computers were ideal for travel and field work - almost stateless, capable of being used offline, low cost and robust. Our 701SD went on a number of overeas trips with us and and I used it extensively going to conferences and seminars.

At the same time I used an old recycled iMac as my main desk computer at home very successfully for a number of years - essentially because I only used web based applications plus a couple of local editors - something that proved to me at least that the browser was king and the host platform increasingly irrelevant. Data was of course stored elsewhere.

The real trouble with the netbook concept was that people didn’t really see it as an internet first device, and more as a low cost computer. That, plus both the FUD around Linux and Microsoft’s hobbling of Windows 7 Home Basic’s capablities stymied the netbook concept. Instead we took a left turn through tablet based computing - yet another application of low cost internet based computing.

Now, one of the things that is interesting about the iPad is just how many third party keyboard solutions there are, which is effectively a way of turning a tablet computer into a netbook - or since we’re using browser based applications, a netbook - and I emphasise net in netbook.

This time around public internet access is more common meaning that having an offline capability is useful, but not as essential as it once was.

So, what are they like in daily use?

Well if you have Chrome on your desktop and use gmail and google docs you already know the answer - it’s just the same. And you are not tied exclusively to Google, Zoho works just fine and if you have a Microsoft account you can use Microsoft’s online versions of Word and Excel - they’re not perfect but good enough for most cases where Google Docs import and convert doesn’t quite cut it. And of course you have Roll.app’s hosted Open Office and Libre Office) if you’re doing something too fiddly for Docs, although in my experience niether fork copes well with some of the more complex formatting in Office documents when they’ve been created with (a) a complex style sheet and (b) been through one or two Office installs already - project proposals and the like where they have to be created using the standard template and have to go through a number of reviewers, with some back and forth being the prime example.

However for 90% of daily computing use they just work. And that’s because all the common applications you might use, such as Evernote and Wunderlist to name two have web versions and or clients for the Chromebook environment - there is very little that you can’t do in a web based enivronment - something for which we have to thank Steve Jobs and the iPad for making network centric computing mainstream.

Chromebooks mostly just work. And providing you have no problem about being dependent on the google ecology, provide affordable low cost computing with remote data storage. Yes, you are dependent on Google and the internet, but then you are anyway …
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