Chromebooks – The Next Post-PC Revolution?

Mac vs. PC? C’mon, those days are long gone. Who cares about personal computers anymore?

Well, okay, maybe we’re not willing to part with our laptops and desktop computers just yet. However, the battle between Apple and Microsoft over Mac OS and Windows has receded into more of a cold war; after all, Mac and Windows went head-to-head in the ’90s, and Windows definitively won.

But now, as we head into the 2010s, a brand new battle is raging over what the industry analysts refer to as “post-PC” devices–mobile devices that are intended to be accessories to the traditional personal computer. Your mobile phones, your netbooks, and your tablets. And in pretty much all of these fields, the main competitors are Apple and Google.

For mobile phones and tablets, the fight continues between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, and it eerily parallels the Mac vs. Windows battles of decades ago. Apple invented the modern multi-touch app phone and tablet, and they have done so utilizing a fully-integrated architecture that they control themselves. Google then imitated Apple’s lead in both markets with Android, which it has licensed to multiple other companies as the operating system for their own plethora of phone and tablet designs. The only difference between that and Microsoft’s licensing of Windows to x86 manufacturers? Android is free and open-source, so Google’s not charging hardware manufacturers for licensing its mobile OS.

But let’s set the iOS/Android battles aside for another day, and look at the other post-PC category that I mentioned above: netbooks. There really isn’t much competition in this space because so far, netbooks suck.

Try taking a full-on installation of Windows with all of its bloatware and cramming it on a tiny laptop with a cramped keyboard, limited processing power, and horrible battery life, and see if anyone is particularly excited about using it. They really aren’t good for much of anything beyond checking e-mail and a bit of web browsing, and that’s why in Apple’s case, they solidly declared that “netbooks aren’t good at anything” and decided to develop the iPad instead.

But Google, on the other hand, has decided to embrace the concept of netbooks, and to enhance them with what I think is an incredible idea: developing a brand-new operating system, just for netbooks, entirely based on their Chrome web browser. Meet the Chromebook.

Here’s pretty much what Google is saying: Netbooks aren’t that good for doing much else outside of using the web, right? So what if we get rid of all of that extraneous software and just present a web browser as the exclusive user interface? The result is a custom-built operating system that packs the speed, security, and dead-simple interface that Google Chrome is known for, and that auto-updates itself, backs itself up on the cloud, and boots in only eight seconds. Throw in a collection of cloud-based web apps available on the Chrome Web Store, and Google has itself a fairly compelling platform with Chrome OS. Plus, with its support for Google accounts (and who doesn’t have one of these?), each Chromebook is fully multi-user with zero configuration, and auto-syncs all of your data with Chrome on your desktop or laptop PC, making it a true post-PC device.

I think that when the first Chromebooks ship in June (the first two models, from Samsung and Acer, will be available for order on June 15), the netbook will finally be redeemed from a cheap joke to a truly useful device that will be even easier to use and manage than an iPad is. Not to mention with prices starting at $349 (for the Acer model), Chromebooks will be much stronger competition for the iPad than Android Honeycomb-based tablets (like the Xoom) have been so far.

But Google has actually raised the stakes even farther, by offering an aggressive program to target two markets that have been abandoned the most by the traditional PC model: business/enterprise and schools. These places are responsible for maintaining hundreds, or even thousands, of computers and devices. Upgrading software across an entire organization is an incredibly arduous task; it’s the very reason why Windows XP and old versions of Internet Explorer are still used heavily despite being nearly a decade old and freakishly insecure.

So Google is offering these enterprise and education customers with subscription plans, where at a cost of $28 per user per month ($20 for schools & universities), Google will provide a complete hardware & service package that includes the Chromebook, technical support, warranty, and replacements, and will even upgrade users to new hardware at no extra cost when the existing hardware lifecycle is complete. (And of course, the Chrome OS software always updates itself.) This seriously raises the level of incentives for businesses and schools to adopt Chromebooks in their industry.

Are you listening, AU? For only $20 per user per month, you could give every student and faculty member a free Chromebook. Think about it.

Shameless begging aside, I firmly believe that Chrome OS is a radical and revolutionary idea that is going to create a brand new category of product, in the same way that the iPad did last year. Sure, there were tablets before 2010, but the iPad totally redefined the idea of what a tablet computer can do, and took off beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Chrome OS is poised to do the same thing, taking us yet another step deeper into the era of post-PC computing.

This entry was posted in Invention and Innovation, On the Technical Side by Douglas Bell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.