A lot of what we all do with our computers these days is online. A very large proportion of us forego the comfort of an email client and rely instead on a web based mail service such as Gmail or outlook.com. In recent years there has been a big push from a lot of big name companies — the likes of Google, Adobe and Microsoft — to encourage their customers to work increasingly in the cloud.
It is likely that the widespread use of webmail has helped to make the idea of breaking away from the confines of desktop software, but the ever-increasing popularity of smartphones and tablets can probably also claim some responsibility. The ability to work on the move on a smaller-screened device is obviously very liberating, but there are new considerations to keep in mind. It is all well and good being able to work away from the desktop, but there will probably come a time when you want to work on a regular computer rather than a portable device. Of course, you can plug your phone or tablet into your computer and copy files back and forth as required… but this is too much like hard work!
What would make more sense would be if you could store files online much as you already do with your emails. Enter cloud storage: the likes of Google Drive, SkyDrive and DropBox. Assuming you have an internet connection, files stored online this way can be accessed from just about any computer. This is now common place, it seemed like a logical step to take things a little further.
The likes of Google Docs — or just the tools built into Google Drive as they became more recently — combine the idea of storing files and editing them. This gives you what is essentially an online office suite. It is free, works on a wide range of operating systems and web browsers… what’s not to like? You can create a quick document on your phone when inspiration strikes, continue working on a tablet and finish off on a desktop. It is a simple idea, but it is one that makes sense.
As a company with the web at its heart, it is little wonder that Google is so heavily involved in moving software into the cloud. The word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tools on offer may not have all of the features of Microsoft Office, but all of the essentials are there. The beauty of working this way is that there is no need to worry about where your files are or which computer you’re going to be using. As long as you have access to a web browser, you have everything you need — no need to install software, so you could, theoretically, log into your account on any machine, anywhere and work with your files.
In many ways, Google has created a complete infrastructure. With a Google account you have everything you need in one place — email, calendar, office suite, image and video organization, and so much more. The company has already managed to get users familiar with the idea of syncing files and settings between devices thanks to the options available in Android.
As great a platform as Android is, it is not really cut out for everything you might want to do with a computer. So Google took a different tack. Chrome should not be looked at as a browser, but as an operating system. Gmail is not a website, but an email client that runs in Chrome, Drive is an office suite and file manager that runs under the same operating system.
This is a fairly new — although not completely unique — way of thinking. But Chrome sits within Windows (or Linux or OS X, for that matter), so it is difficult to look at as an operating system in its own right. It is more of an operating system within an operating system. It is quite Shakespearean in a “play within a play” type way. For Chrome to be looked at as a platform, it needed its own hardware to run on: a Chromebook.
This is where we find ourselves now. Chromebooks are a reality rather than a dream. The hardware, apps and infrastructure are all in place. But does it all work together. A few years ago, the netbook was thought to be the next big thing. But ultimately people started to see these devices for what they were: small, underpowered laptops running Windows.
There are several reasons why Chromebooks can — and should — be looked at differently. Here you are getting the complete package — the complete Google experience. In many ways Chromebooks and netbooks are quite similar. Both are cheap (usually incredibly so) and both focus on lightness, portability and battery life rather than raw power.
There are plenty of Chromebooks to choose from, but all offer basically the same experience. It might be difficult for Google haters to swallow, but you really do need to immerse yourself in the world of Google. You don’t need to become a fanboy overnight, but if you’re not a lover of Google, you’ll need to bite your tongue. To quell any complaints about having to search high and low for websites that provides online apps for various tasks and services, there’s an “app store” that can be used to browse and download numerous apps and extensions.
Something of a learning curve due to the slightly different way of working…think moving from a Mac to a PC. Things are simultaneously foreign and familiar. The lack of an obvious operating system takes some getting used to, but ultimately it focuses the mind as there are fewer distractions. But everything runs with the browser — whether you regard it as a browser or the operating system. Apps work differently and you’ll probably find that you try to Alt-Tab between windows only to remember that you have apps open in different tabs.
The slightly odd file manager used to browse locally stored files has an alien feel to it, but that’s kind of the point. Storing files locally should feel alien — you’re working in the cloud now, baby!
There is no getting away from the fact that jumping from a PC or Mac to a Chromebook involves something of a learning curve — it is not necessarily a simple transition. That’s not to say it is offputtingly difficult, but this is about more than just using a different operating system, it’s about embracing a completely different way of working. With Chromebook, Google has set up an ecosystem, much as it has done with Android on tablets and smartphones.
It’s a lot to ask of someone to ditch their familiar laptop and switch to a Chromebook. But to help ease the transition, the Chrome App Launcher does a great job. It sits in Windows’ taskbar and provides easy access to various Google tools and Chrome apps. It may not be quite the same as using a Chromebook full time, but it serves as a helpful introduction.
Have you tried making the move to a Chromebook, or are you happy just using online services in your browser? Or are you more of a traditionalist who prefers installable software running from your hard drive? I know I’m not quite ready to make the jump full time: I still use a Windows laptop most of the time. But I do love my Chromebook, and knowing that all of my files are sitting in Google Drive makes it easy for me to get on with a little work whenever the mood takes me. Now…if only there was 100 percent free wifi coverage around the world.