Can a computer that is slightly more expensive than others with the same components, doesn’t run the software people are accustomed to, relies on users to store their personal treasures on someone else’s cloud, and may or may not recognize the devices plugged into it, really find success? Are we really asking this question as though the answer could be “Yes”?
A personal computer is inherently different from a software platform. Historically, consumers and businesses haven’t invested in computer equipment for the quality of its software platform alone. If they did, the Macintosh question would have been settled in 1985. Instead, the majority of buyers make investments (often with great reluctance) in software platforms by virtue of their being supported by safe, reliable and compatible systems that won’t get them into trouble.
There is nothing about the new generation of Web apps that will magically change this trend. To be frightfully honest, there is nothing about the virtue of being a Web app that elevates it to the level of good. Yet Google’s repeated gamble with the second round of Chromebook and Chromebox (introduced Tuesday; for more details see New Chromebook and Chromebox Are Good Enough to Grab Minds and Market Share, by ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell), is that the quality of Web apps in themselves has risen to such a level that consumers will be willing to overlook the discrepancies between a Web platform and a real operating system, and actually spend a small premium for something inferior to a typical PC.
If consumers refused to spend less money (as was the case in the 1980s and ’90s) for something that was clearly more than a PC, it seems certain now that they will refuse to spend more money for something that is less.
Lest We Forget the Spec Sheet
A Samsung Chromebook is today, in essence, an Intel Celeron 867-based PC system with a 16GB solid-state drive instead of a 320GB (or thereabouts) hard drive, 4GB of (apparently non-expandable) RAM, two USB ports and no built-in DVD drive. Its suggested retail price is $549 which, if it were applied to the Windows ultraportable market, would probably translate to a street price of less than $500. But discounts come as a result of competition with other machines in its class, and as Google keeps reminding us, there are no other machines in this class. So for now, $549 is probably the street price.
Let’s take the perspective of actual consumers and businesses. Let’s ask the kinds of questions that humans will ask when they see one of these Chromebooks for the first time.
First, obviously there’s no optical disc drive, yet the software would have me store all my files on this cloud-based service called Google Drive. So how do I get my existing files from here to there? Presumably I would plug a storage device into one of the USB ports. Will the operating system recognize my storage device? This is an important but unanswered question. Perhaps this thing recognizes most flash-based USB thumb drives in the world (again, an assumption) but will it read data from a Western Digital My Passport or Seagate Expansion drive? Windows 7 needed to download new drivers to recognize the latest My Passport drives (I’ve watched it happen). When a new class of hardware comes out, is Chrome OS equipped to download the latest drivers?
The driver issue is important for another reason: Can I print stuff? Granted, it doesn’t cost that much these days to go buy another printer (the ink is another story, of course). But how do we know whether any particular printer will work with a Chromebook? And even assuming it “works,” what does that mean, exactly? Do users have to upload photos before they print them? Can you look at the photos on your external drive or Google Drive (or wherever), select a handful of them, send them to the printer and make photos? Or do you need an app for that? And if you do need an app, which one?
And what about video cameras? This Chromebook thing doesn’t have a DVD player, but can it play movies? One of the tremendous responsibilities of a real operating system, which we may tend to forget, is that it must recognize, welcome and interface with all classes of hardware. Equally important is the requirement to play nicely with a variety of classes of media. Media comes from many places, not just online. It would certainly be convenient if all the media producers were to suddenly adopt a single format. It would be even more convenient for Google if that format was WebM. But this will never happen.
As nice as it might be to pretend our digital lives will be seamlessly transported (like a plot from a lesser Star Trek movie) to a world in the cloud, this too will never happen. No so long as people worry about the security of their precious media.
Whom Do We Ask for Help?
For a consumer standing in a Best Buy or similar retail store, asking these real-world questions of the salesperson and watching her fidget as she tries to remember whom she should ask to get the response, there’s not going to be a lot of confidence. Especially when they’re standing next to a variety of competing machines, say Lenovo’s ThinkPad 2338A (known elsewhere as ThinkPad X130e-2338-A14).
First of all, Lenovo is a better-known brand than Samsung, and the machine comes with the same Intel Celeron 867 1.3 GHz processor, as well as 320GB of storage built-in and three USB ports instead of two. Online shoppers, meanwhile, might look at Dell’s Vostro V131, whose starter configuration also features the Celeron 867.
Either way, there are no worries about plugging in just about any external device, and the machines cost about $500, which either matches or beats the Samsung’s price. For a little more, they could upgrade to a Core i3 processor, which is like upgrading from a four- to a six-cylinder engine.
At this point, you have to ask what is so special about not running Windows that it’s worth paying extra for? ReadWriteWeb’s Richard MacManus points out that Chromebook users won’t have to buy software (More Bad News for HP: The New Google Chromebook Compared to a Typical HP Laptop), but that misses the point. After all, you can run Chrome for Mac or Windows right now if you want to. Besides, there is already a market for slightly-less-than-average-performance, slightly higher-than-average-priced non-PCs. Just look inside any airport, coffee house or design studio: Apple has absorbed that market in totum.
In Search of a Bottom Line
So remind me, once again: Is there some sensible value proposition for owning a Chromebook that I completely missed? If I’m going to make this leap of faith, what exactly should I expect to get? Our friends at Engadget have an answer. Writes Dana Wollman, “Seriously, folks, you’re looking at a $449 netbook-like machine whose island-style keys put thousand-dollar Ultrabooks to shame.”
And there you have it. A Samsung Chromebook with Google Chrome OS is a system with those Mac-ish square keys, but at half the price! Of course, to add 3G connectivity (which I would need in order to, say, access all my files whenever I need them), then that’s a $100 extra option. Even without it, though, doesn’t it look like a real Mac, almost? For that matter, doesn’t anything from Vtech look slightly like a real PC?
When everyday consumers and businesses look at supposedly knowledgeable computer-types as though we’re from Mars – it’s usually because we’re from Mars. We’ve become so in awe of the idea of “mobile connectivity” that we forget to ask questions. Thankfully, real people haven’t yet lost that ability. Which is why the Chromebook will never become a real PC until it has a real OS. Until then, it’s a cheap keyboard.