The announcement of the Chromebook Pixel has driven something home for me: People don't get the Chromebook – and by people, I mostly mean the tech journalists covering it. Reviewers and pundits have poo-pooed Google's web-connected laptops almost since day one, harping on at the devices for being too expensive, too limited, too reliant on the web. In the meantime, Chromebooks have gotten astonishingly inexpensive, picked up all sorts of functionality, and greatly expanded that functionality both online and off.
The Chromebook is a category unto itself, distinct from regular laptops. And the features championed by Google's Chromebook experiment are already sending ripples through the tech world, with Microsoft's Office 365 offering an answer to Google Docs, and cloud storage services like SkyDrive and Dropbox gaining popularity.
Chromebooks may not be for all users in all circumstances, but they still have a place in the market, and are rapidly evolving beyond the devices that formed the basis of many reviewers' first impressions. Shouldn't those opinions be evolving as well?
The hardware/software focus
The dominant paradigm in the PC market is all about hardware and software – your ability to do and create has long been limited by processor speed, storage space, and the programs that utilise them. This isn’t an incorrect way to view the world, and for many, it's still the way things are. But the years spent focusing on speeds and feeds – the numbers we use to compare components and products – have left many unable to recognise the Chromebook for what it is: A device coming from a completely different place.
Google approaches personal technology differently, starting and finishing with the web. Some of this is self-serving – the more time people spend online, the more often Google can serve them ads. But the simple fact is that, when it comes to life online, the folks at Google know their stuff as well as – if not better than – anyone else.
From Google's web-centric point of view, this hardware-myopia isn't serving people well at an individual level. For many people, laptops are mainly used to connect with other people, find and share information, and to do the occasional productive task – and Google knows that you don't need expensive hardware and sophisticated software to do any of that. All you really need is an Internet connection.
For folks who write papers, manage their finances, and edit photos, Google already has free tools available online, namely Google Docs and Picasa, that offer the basic features of Word, Excel, and Photoshop. Do these services duplicate every feature? No. But it can be argued that most people don't need them. So why pay for them?
Limitations and features
Plenty has been written about the limitations of the Chromebook. The local storage is small. Processing power is skimpy – the Acer C7 Chromebook for example uses a dual-core Celeron processor. These notebooks don’t boast powerhouse CPUs. There's also no support for the software you're accustomed to using. No Microsoft Office, no Photoshop, no nothing. You're limited to whatever web-based apps and services you can find. To top it all off, Chrome is mostly just a browser, and requires an Internet connection. But there's a problem with this list of limitations – it's comparing apples to oranges, then declaring the apple deficient for lacking the most basic features of good citrus fruit.
Local storage is small, but that's hardly relevant – not when you're storing your data in the cloud. Instead, the cloud offers storage that can also be accessed at any time, from your PC, tablet, or smartphone. When you replace your Chromebook for another, data migration isn't an issue, because there's nothing to migrate. You already have access to everything you need.
When you don't have anything taxing to run, or you can shift that workload to more powerful resources elsewhere, then the size and speed of your CPU isn't an issue. The hardware inside a Chromebook is only as important as the web browsing it supports.
Complaints about software are moot. Of course it doesn't support software, you can't even install it. Your toolset is online, harnessing the hundreds of apps and extensions available for Chrome, for a fraction of the price, if not for free. And though you need to be online to set it up, a large percentage of these tools also have offline functionality, syncing automatically once you're connected again.
And let's not pretend that connectivity isn't an issue on any other machine. While you may have access to software and programs when your connection is severed, you won't have access to the myriad sites and services that you likely use the majority of your day. Goodbye email, instant messenger, and social media. So long Twitter, and Facebook, and YouTube, and Netflix, and Spotify, and Wikipedia, and anything else you rely on for productivity and procrastination. Let's be honest. Without the Internet, most of what you do comes to a screeching halt, Chromebook or otherwise.
Dogging a product for doing exactly what it is meant to do suggests that the problem isn't with the product, but the reviewer. Complaints about the Chromebook – wimpy hardware, small storage space, and the need for constant connectivity – may be completely true by certain measures, but they are based on a flawed understanding of what the Chromebook is and how it works.
The big question
While powerful PCs will still have a place in coming years – particularly in the workplace, where professional tasks warrant investing in higher-grade tools – I think the personal computing experience will be dramatically influenced by Google's vision. The Chromebook is the device for our always-connected tomorrow, but a lot of people already live in the browser; there is a market for the Chromebook today.
People look at the Chromebook and ask: "Why would you buy a Chromebook when you can buy this Windows/Mac system and get so much more?" But they have the question backwards. The real question isn't: "Why settle for less?"
Rather, it’s: "Why pay so much more for things I don't need?"
Permit me to use an analogy. Few would argue that Netflix and Lovefilm Instant are better than a cable or satellite TV subscription. Cable simply offers more content. But that doesn't mean that you need Virgin cable or Sky, or even that you should always opt for them over online services.
In fact, plenty of people have done the opposite, opting to stick with streaming services such as Netflix. It's not necessarily because these options are "better" than what you get with cable, but that it may be all you need, and there's no good reason to pay more for channels you don't watch and shows you never want to see.
Does a Windows machine offer more capability than a Chromebook? Of course. And for a lot of people, that's reason enough to stick with what they know. But that doesn't make the Chromebook a bad option, or a foolish purchase. It makes it a decision that should be considered beforehand. It makes it a poor decision if it's not a good fit.
But where it is a good fit – and there are plenty of folks using expensive PCs almost exclusively for web browsing – then tech journalists have a responsibility to know that, and understand that, and guide people accordingly.
For more Chromebook-related articles, see our hands-on with the Chromebook Pixel.