Google’s Browser OS “Chromebook” is Start of New Lightweight Era –Yet Lacks Productivity Features

Altimeter's office The HangarRecently, I got my hands on the new Chromebook, a light featured laptop using the Chrome browser as an OS, and a Samsung laptop as its physical frame. While the market is still discussing the end state of HP’s Web OS, now’s a good time to see how other companies are launching their platforms. In particular, the war over eyeballs, desktops, and devices between Microsoft and Google is a long strewn out battle. In Google’s most recent move of Chrombook, they launched an incredibly thin version of an operation systems, Chromebook OS.

While I’m not a device guy (I leave that to colleague Chris Silva) I do want to discuss the future of the web, which is most suitable for the Web Strategy blog. In our continued quest to watch the web evolve, let me share with you what I found.

Strong First Push –But Lacking Features For Knowledge Workers
First of all, I was surprised when getting the Chrombook and booting it up, I expected to see the Honeycomb OS which I have on a tablet, this one allows for multiple applications, a robust UI, and is deeper in features. However the Chromebook was well, just as lableled: A browser. If you’re familiar with the Chrome browser that’s really all the device is. You can open multiple windows, and then tabs in each browser, but you can’t install other applications, although plugins are said to be available or coming. Overall, there’s very limited local storage, so most files have to be saved in Google docs. Like most knowledge workers, access to office applications and documents is key, and working my powerpoint files within Google Docs isn’t sufficient (although I’m mainly on the cloud and have created hundreds of Google docs, sheets, and forms through the years). Perhaps one stinging feeling is that it crashed twice within the first two days, despite me doing all the software updates.

The Pendulum Swings Back to Decentralized
The big trend? Every decade, we see the trend shift from local to network, from central to decentralized, from desktop to terminal. Now, with Chromebook we can see Google placing their bets on a ‘terminal’ based system that’s constantly connected to the ‘Google mainframe’ and internet. Yet despite this push, the limits of Chromebook are clear, you have to be online all the time, and due to the lack of local apps and extensive storage (you can plug a somewhat cumbersome USB storage device in) the device is worth it’s weight when on a plane (although a 3G version is available while on the ground). Until internet access is ubiquitous, don’t expect the Chromebook with no local storage to be fully useful in the sense we currently think of laptops

Chromebook OS not a Winner Till they Bridge Full Feature Functions
While the Chromebook (the one I have is from Samsung, which has an ok frame but a lackluster screen) is priced at $429 on Amazon, it feels a bit high as I could get a low end laptop, or a tablet with a bluetooth keyboard for just about the same price. While this device is an important milestone in the evolution of web based operating systems, there’s still a ways to go. There are a few saving graces for the Chromebook: Companies that seek to create online kiosks in their physical stores (hospitality, airports, and airlines like Virgin Air‘s offering of Chromebooks while in flight) can stand to benefit from this very light weight tool.  What would satisfy my needs and that of other knowledge workers?  A Chromebook that doesn’t cross completely over to a “terminal” browser only system and offers local storage and a handful of office productivity tools that can easily be accessed when offline.

I’ve asked our mobile analyst Chris Silva (follow him on Twitter) to jump in the comments, should you want to get his point of view on the future of mobile and devices.  The Google Chrome team is responding to me in Google+, (herehere and here) come join the discussion and see other comments.

Update: The conversation is also spilling into G+.

16 Replies to “Google’s Browser OS “Chromebook” is Start of New Lightweight Era –Yet Lacks Productivity Features”

  1. That surprises me – it seems that the market is pushing towards tablet computing for web browsing. If I was going to buy a laptop, I would expect more functionality than simple web-browsing – as you say, I would expect applications, internal storage, and the ability to work offline (for example when away from wireless hotspots, or when you are simply unwilling to pay a hotel £20 a day for internet access!). I fail to see why you would build a laptop if it is only going to do what a tablet can do.

  2. I was a bit surprised too Andrew.  I’m hoping the next iteration will have more features closer to a desktop.  While I get what Google is trying to do, internet access is not ubiquitous and we need power for certain apps 

  3. Between the time Google launched the Chromebook to much fanfare and now, in the recent wake of Google/Moto and HP’s move to bow out of PCs, we’re in a different place evolution-wise than when Chromebook was conceived and launched. 

    I had a comment on my blog about Google/Moto pondering that perhaps the lackluster success of Chromebooks and the associate browser-based OS was a reason for the Moto buy on Google’s part. Maybe, but more than a direct cause-efect, I think Chromebook was a proof of concept for an extra-light OS that ended up on an unfortunate form factor, and one that we’re going to see less and less emphasis on from OEMs and PC marques. The Chromebook reception illustrated to Google that it had to be an invested player in other types of hardware that users are gravitating toward, and not just a software and services vendor.

    Jeremiah, you hit the nail on the head when you note that, “I could get a… tablet with a bluetooth keyboard for about the same price.” Truth be told, most users seeking to access content on the fly, and especailly those reliant on the cloud are seeking to consume, not create content while mobile. They may lightly tweak and then present content on the move but a creation-centric device such as a laptop is not necessary as remote storage and greater connectivity options come online. In those use cases, a tablet (albeit with some external add-ons) is a much better tool for the user’s money. That said, price is still an issue. 

    This weekend’s run down of HP Touchpad inventory, by pricing them at $49-$99 based on capacity, shows that the market is hungry for a low-cost tablet. Many consumers have been rapidly buying up iPads but for the majority of casual users and even those road warriors that want a simple content consumption/content display device, expecting them to pony up $500 or more is unrealistic. Chrome can help solve this, as the OS makes a lot more sense to be used on a consumption centric device like a tablet vs a creation-centric device like a laptop. Not to mention, hardware requirements would lower cost to create a mass-market tablet.

  4. At present, this is true for OS updates, though in short order iOS 5 will negate this with a move to OTA updates. On Android all downloaded apps and settings are stored in the cloud, updates come OTA now. 

    I’d imagine a ChromeOS based tablet would be PC independent, as well, should the idea ever materialize. 

  5. And, I neglected to mention above, my intent here is that the tablet would be the “lightweight” extension of a thick client (desktop or laptop) for on-the-go computing, a role a tablet could easily usurp today.

  6. Timely post having just learned that Virgin Air is renting Chromebooks to their passengers in-flight. The quick & dirty, first to market release still carries a lot of weight in the tech world…arguably moreso than ever.

  7. Timely post having just learned that Virgin Air is renting Chromebooks to their passengers in-flight. The quick & dirty, first to market release still carries a lot of weight in the tech world…arguably moreso than ever.

  8. Timely post having just learned that Virgin Air is renting Chromebooks to their passengers in-flight. The quick & dirty, first to market release still carries a lot of weight in the tech world…arguably moreso than ever.

  9. Fastball, yes I linked to that in the post.  Interesting play.  But with the limited features, unless Virgin had their own media player embedded in the Chromebook, my thought is a tablet would be just as sufficient.  Input device for browser alone has it’s limitations for productivity. Now for personal social networking and web based email, that can make sense in the air –anything more and a tablet would be sufficient. 

  10. I think what it really showed is simply that those in the know that could jump on the deal saw a really easy way to get a color Kindle cheap. Beyond that, of course everyone would like to pay just $49-99 and if wishes were horses we’d all ride.

  11. I™ve never know yet for this Chromebook OS since I found
    this post. Thank you for sharing this new update. I will try to find OS because
    it is really interesting.

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