Does Google's Chromebook take the cloud too far?


Date: 9 June 2011

The original Google Chomebook

Google's first Chromebook (Image: karlnorling on Flickr)

If you keep your fingers on the pulse of technology (so to speak) then you've probably already heard about the Chromebook, Google's latest attempt to take over the world change how we think about computers.

A Chromebook (there will eventually be several models, from different manufacturers) looks just like a bog-standard netbook. It's basically a small, light-ish laptop that's thin and has a good battery life. So far, so-so.

The Chromebook is a web browser

The real difference comes when you turn the thing on. According to reports, it starts up superfast (we're talking under ten seconds) and the first thing you see is a web browser. With the Google homepage on, we assume.

Other software? There isn't any. All you have is your web browser. And - of course - your internet connection, which is about to become more important than ever. Because with the Chromebook, everything is stored online, in the cloud.

You access everything on the internet. Your files, your applications, the lot. Want to check your email? Forget about installing Microsoft Outlook; you'll need to log in to your Gmail account (or your preferred email service).

Need to work on a document? Google would prefer you to use Google Documents, though you could also use Microsoft's Office 365 beta.

If you've ever been confused about what cloud computing means, the Chromebook is a great illustration of it in action. Virtually everything you do with it, you'll do online.

The Chromebook's weak link is your connection

You've probably spotted the flaw by now: what happens when you're not connected to the internet? Well, Google's own Chromebook page is keen to point out that not all is lost: 'many apps keep working, even in those rare moments when you're not connected'.

'Rare moments'? I wonder. Sure, some Chromebooks will have a built in 3G connection which means you don't need to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot to get online. But this costs extra - and as many netbook users will know, there are parts of the country where you'll struggle for any sort of signal at all, never mind a fast one.

Is the Chromebook right for business?

So, with all your files stored online, all your programs accessed online, and your web browser the only way you have of doing anything, is this taking cloud computing a little too far - especially for business use?

Well, although more and more companies are relying on the cloud to provide various aspects of their IT, it's rare to find one confident enough to move everything to the cloud. But that, effectively, is what the Chromebook does.

There are big management advantages. As Google's co-founder Sergey Brin puts it: "The complexity of managing your computer is torturing users. It's a flawed model fundamentally. Chromebooks are a new model that doesn't put the burden of managing your computer on yourself."

He has a point. I'd dearly love to never see another stupid dialog box urging me to update and restart my computer now. But I'm not sure I'm ready to sacrifice the control I have over my own data just yet. And I suspect a lot of other businesses will be feeling the same.

But then maybe they don't have to. As Google explains, you can 'run your browser-based apps instantly, whether in the cloud or behind your firewall, as well as apps virtualised through technologies like Citrix'. In simple terms, that means you can hook a Chromebook up to servers that you own or operate (your own 'private cloud', in effect). Any more tempted?

Chromebooks should be available from Amazon and PC World soon. We can't find UK prices yet, but they'll start at $350 in the US.

What do you think of the Chromebook? Would you use it in your business?

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