Thursday, June 30, 2011

2 weeks with the Chromebook: stateless in practice, how is it to live with?

After taking delivery of the Samsung Chromebook on June 15, the day it went on sale, I used it throughout my business trip and vacation in California.   I've written that I believe stateless computing, represented in the marketplace by the Chromebook, is one of the most important technology trends.  So how is it to live with every day?

The good news is, for the most part, the Chromebook doesn't feel all that much different from using any laptop.  For routine work, the kind of thing I'm doing all day, I want a genuine keyboard and a larger display; the CB suits me fine.  I continue to really enjoy the unusually bright display and the extraordinary battery life. If you've ever trotted down the hall at work from one meeting to another with your laptop open because it takes so long to resume, you'd enjoy the Chromebook's resume from closed, which is instantaneous for all practical purposes, although it actually may take 2 seconds or so.  The boot-up time for a conventional computer now seems glacial compared to the 10 seconds it takes to launch the Chromebook from fully powered off.

As I mentioned in the last post, I wanted to see how life would be when you're not in range of a conventional WiFi connection.  I activated the included Verizon 3g service, which gives 100mb/month at no charge for 2 years; Using my normal range of 6 tabs for e-mail (Gmail and Yahoo), Facebook, Tweetdeck, LinkedIn, and the Infrics site, I went through 10 of those megabytes in under two hours.  So although the 3g service works, and is reasonably fast, I will only access it as a last resort.

So that brings up tethering. Newer releases of Android phones have a built-in hotspot capability; using my 4g Android phone (T-Mobile), I can bypass the Verizon limitation with a connection that is faster and included in my data plan already.  Where there is a good 4g signal, it works amazingly well. The CB sees the hotspot as it would any WiFi location,  and speeds are comparable to a broadband connection. However, in travels up and down coastal California, I found 4g availability really spotty: strong and reliable across LA and San Francisco, strangely absent at my conference in the Santa Clara Convention Center, where I had to shell out $13/day for WiFi in the heart of silicon valley.  Non-existent across big swaths of the 101 between both cities, and in points north of the bay area.   As I mentioned in my first comment on the Chromebook, I would find this just as limiting with my Windows laptop, but it illustrates how our ability to put powerful connections to use has not been matched yet by networks to support it.

In that first post, I also wondered about Microsoft's Office 365 on the Chrome OS; if Microsoft's application is web-based, would Google try to preserve market for Google Docs by limiting a competitor's functionality?  It turns out the limitation is on the other side; Microsoft does not offer a version of Office 365 that is compatible with Chrome OS, and it also requires a locally-installed copy of traditional Office for full functionality.  So while MS is making cloud-based strides, I don't see evidence that they take stateless application delivery seriously at this time.   If you are considering Chrome OS for enterprise use and must stay with Office, this could be a concern.

Chrome OS has a file manager, which offers some ability to manage "non-cloud" files, and some ability to use locally stored files while not connected to the internet.  It gives "unrecognized file type" if you double click on .doc, .ppt, or .xls files stored on an SD card (the CB has one SD slot), but it will directly open .pdf files without an import into Docs. It also will play some music and video files directly from local storage, using a media player applet.  It is possible to export ("download") a file from the Google Docs cloud to the local solid state storage built in to the machine, although I was unable to get the Chromebook to write anything at all to the SD card.  Whether the fact that unrecognized file types all seem to be those associated with Microsoft is a deliberate act or a shortcoming is a question that will be resolved with iterations of the OS.

The bigger point, though, is that the Chromebook is the first commercial expression of the stateless device idea; to judge it by performance on old-style fat OS standards is to miss the point.  Chromebook is a pleasure to use in almost all the situations in which I'd use a laptop computer, and it offers compelling benefits in terms of speed and simplicity.   I'm not giving up my Windows notebook just yet, but now that it and the Chromebook are side by side as I work, the big operating system will now be my second choice.

Next, as we continue to examine stateless computing in action, we'll consider technology triggers--enabling technologies--that will shape the way stateless evolves.  First, the explosive increase in need for reliable wireless broadband.  Second, the ways in which legacy makers of software and hardware approach stateless and cloud computing: will they kill a great idea to preserve existing profit models, will they evolve in time, or will some of today's big names end up as "wikitrivia," known only to diehard old-timers?

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