Whatever You Do, Don't Buy a Chromebook

The first Chromebooks, from Samsung and Acer, are finally starting to ship, after a six-month tease by Google for its foundational Chrome OS. (Samsung's white 3G model is now shippng, and its three other models and Acer's sole models are available for preorder.) Please, save youself $350 to $500 and avoid these cloud-only laptops. Spend your money on something you'll both use and enjoy, like an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1. I write these words from a Chromebook, where my 802.11n network feels like it's traversing molasses when using Google Docs and other Internet service.

The sad truth is that the Chrome OS vision of all your computing occuring through the Internet is an unsatisfying reality. I've tried to be open to the idea and given the beta Chrome OS the benefit of doubt in its early versions. But as the ship date approached, I began to get nervous that Google couldn't take Chrome OS beyond being an awkward sub-OS.

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Now that we're at the point of Chromebook reality, I cannot in good conscience be generous. The Chromebook concept is a failure, as is the foundational "Webtone" idea that Google got from Sun Microsystems.

Simply put, I don't believe Chrome OS will ever get as good as a world of real apps that tap into the Internet but don't depend on it. The Web apps that run on Chromebooks' Chrome OS -- and they're the only apps that can -- are still primitive and not that capable. Google itself still doesn't have its Google Apps -- the key apps it expects every Chrome OS user to rely on -- yet working in offline mode. That was promised for March, and still it's MIA. Remember, this is Google: a company that has no trouble shipping apps before they're ready.

The Web is not good enough to be your app library
I've been using a beta Chromebook since they were first available in December 2010 and working regularly on an iPad and MacBook Pro, as well as testing most major tablets, trying out the Atrix Lapdock (a dockable smartphone), and dabbling in Windows 7 periodically. It's become quite clear that the Web is an insufficient venue to handle all your computing needs.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was right when he ended the Web-app-only strategy of the iPhone after its first year and switched to an Internet-enhanced native apps model. I didn't have an iPhone back then (2007), so I didn't experience what early iPhone users went through in a Web app-only world. But the iPhone as we know it did not explode until the native apps came. For Chrome OS, we don't need to wait: Windows 7 and Mac OS X are here today, and they can run Web apps, too.

The Chrome OS Web apps, as I said, are primitive. If you've used Webmail, you know what I mean. Imagine if all your apps were like that. They just don't compare to the quality of "real" apps, whether on a tablet or computer. Google's own cloud services, such as Google Docs, are awkward on Chromebook -- even moreso than they are on a PC. If Google can't do Web apps well, don't expect anyone else to.

The Web is not good enough to be your information center
But there's more reason why the Chromebook is a concept you should not waste your money on. For one, online access is uncertain -- both its availability and its quality. If you're a traveler, Wi-Fi charges will rack up fast at airports, Starbucks, and hotels. And the free Verizon Wireless 3G access that comes with one of Samsung's Chromebooks is a laughable 100MB a month -- a teaser amount if I ever heard one. You'll quickly be shelling out real money for 3G data access; after all, Chromebooks can't do anything put play a cached version of Angry Birds (once you've loaded it over the air, of course) without a connection. If those promised services ever appear, streaming music and video would break the bank. Photos too will be data hogs as you move them from online photo services to your Chromebook each time you want to view them or work on them.

Plus, do you really want all your personal information stored in the cloud? Or have access to your data dependent on securing a reliable data connection and the money to keep its meter running?

If you use a Chromebook only in Wi-Fi hotspots, such as at home and at the office, the meter won't be running, so the Chromebook is more plausible in terms of reliable connectivity. But then you are, ironically, tethered to your wireless networks. It's a brick elsewhere, while all your data is in the cloud, even if just as a waystation from other computers.

Then there are the contextual activities we take for granted, but don't exist in the Chrome OS world. For example, forget about printing -- you need a Windows PC on a network to be a waystation to your printer unless you're one of the few people with an ePrint-capable Wi-Fi printer. Also, don't even consider syncing to your iPod; there's no way to connect to iTunes. Or to your BlackBerry, Droid, Zune, or other media devices. (Apple's forthcoming iOS 5 will let its devices work without a computer, so ironically they may be the only realistic companion devices for a Chromebook.)

Welcome to life with only a browser.

The browser-in-a-box is not good enough to be your computer
The Chromebooks are touted as simpler, cheaper devices that you can afford to lose, both because they're not costly and because they contain no data or apps. Thus, their hardware is quite primitive, per Google's specs. That keeps battery life comparable to that of an iPad, and it restricts the weight to three or four pounds. You can use a mouse or external USB keyboard, as well as acccess some external storage via what are essentially FTP windows.

This may sound great for a company that doesn't want to buy computers or maintain them. But what are the chances that they can rely solely on Google Docs and similar services? Very small. Better to use VDI technology with real computers or even simple netbooting of "dumb terminal" Macs over the network. The cost wil be higher than using Chromebooks as wireless dumb terminals, but they'll actually be able to do the work.

For the rest of us, the Chromebooks lack Bluetooth, so you can't use wireless peripherals, which are gaining in popularity. You also can't use Bluetooth headsets for apps such as Skype or media players -- but given the communications issue I've cited, using Skype and digital media probably isn't realistic on Chromebooks anyhow.

Plus, with the rare exception of ePrint models (which the iPad was supposed to popularize last October, but has failed to do so), you can't connect a printer except if you have a PC on all day acting as its print server and are willing to go through Google's very convoluted setup.

iPads and other tablets can't do some of these things, either, but they're not pretending to be an alternative to Windows and Mac OS X (a claim made by Google's executives when they formally announced Chrome OS last December). In addition, they work much better with apps, with easier work-arounds for wireless printing. They also work with Bluetooth to varying degrees.

This constrained hardware does simplify the Chromebooks. It also makes them commodity products for which the manufacturers can do little other than style the case, choose the keyboard and trackpad feel, and select the screen quality. They're basically just boxes. Samsung's Chromebooks are nice-looking boxes, a very strong copy of the Apple MacBook design, just as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is clearly a clone of the iPad's design. Acer's Chromebook looks like a generic Windows laptop.

Ths means that the real driver and innovator behind the Chromebook is and will be Google.

Can Google really deliver a polished product?
That worries me, and it should worry you. Google plays with lots of technologies, and it has a culture of releasing incomplete software, then dropping it suddenly. Google throws half-baked technology against the wall, hoping it will cook itself as it travels in the air or as it sticks on the surface. I know Google has spent years on Chrome OS, so this is not a whimsical product. But those years of invesment aren't apparent in the final result.

Worse, the Chromebooks are advertised as having the benefit of improving over time due to regular self-updates. That means they're not ready for prime time and you're paying to be a beta tester. Major OSes like Windows and Mac OS X get updates periodically, but what ships is considered a viable product in its own right -- not so with Chrome OS, just as it has not been so with Google Docs.

I'm tired of being told that half-baked is innovative. Thirty-plus years into the PC revolution, it's time to expect that products work well when they're sold for money. Apple has understood that, which is why it's the only PC maker to grow every quarter. Google doesn't.

The Chromebooks are an interesting but failed experiment, not a product.

Even if you would use the Chromebook as a secondary, supplemental device -- an adjunct to your PC or Mac -- you'll have to contend with all these issues. Frankly, a tablet is a better option to be such an adjunct: It fits both the Mac and PC environments better, it supports apps whether or not you have a wireless connection, and it's much easier to carry around.

Maybe the Chromebook has some appeal because it's both new and trying to do something different. Kudos to Google for that. But if you want to invest in innovative experimentation, go for an iPad 2 or one of the better Android tablets (a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or a Motorola Mobility Xoom); they're actual products, as well as innovators. Or just get a lightweight laptop -- a MacBook Air or a Windows ultralight -- so you have your computer and Web apps world, too.

Just don't buy a Chromebook.

This article, "Whatever you do, don't buy a Chromebook," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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