5 Things You Need To Know About The Chromebook

Google Chromebook is on the way (coming in June), and it’s seeking to change the way you think about computers.

Chromebook is a essentially a laptop computer that runs Google’s proprietary web browser, Chrome as its operating system. This makes it simple, fast, cloud-based, and inexpensive to buy and maintain. In terms of features and software, that’s the end of the story.

But of course there’s more we’ll get to momentarily. First a look at how we got here.

Background

Five years ago, a web browser was simply another program on your computer, along with Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and any number of other (likely boxed) programs you bought from you local CompUSA. While other attempts to use the browser more deeply (Adobe AIR, for example) have met with mixed results, Google has a considerable ecology behind it–including its world-beating search engine, and Android mobile operating systems.

While typical browser duty of providing website access alone used to be enough, the web has changed since the days Bill Clinton played the sax in the White House (or the Arsenio Hall Show).  First it became clear that blogs were here to stay, but then social media exploded, which helped spawn browser-based games, YouTube was lifted to new heights by Justin Beiber and, well–the old web was gone.

Google is taking this a step further with Chromebooks, a bold experiment that will test the strength of their gravity on the internet. Some call it a laptop minus all the tools, while others suspect it might just be brilliant. If you’re still confused by exactly what a “Chromebook” is, and why it’s a big deal, start with these five ideas.

1. It’s a laptop

One that runs Google Chrome, and only Google Chrome. Tablets are all the rage right now, and this is not a tablet. Whether or not that bothers you depends on your goals for the hardware, but it’s difficult to imagine a point in the immediate future where keyboards are no longer necessary, or virtual keyboards completely replace those physical. They will be manufactured by standard OEMs like Acer, Samsung, and even Sony.

2. It’s simple

One of the big ideas behind the Chromebook is its simplicity. With a minimal operating system, no anti-virus software, and no bloated productivity suites, the Chromebook starts in about ten seconds. Updates are done automatically, and the way the apps work with one another are handled by developers, not you.

3. It’s cloud-based

This is perhaps the best part. No accessing dated school letter drives, reduced need for flash drives, and constant automatic saving of files from .doc to .ppt and every native media type in between.

4. It’s inexpensive–but not free

See #2. At under $500–and with the web as its sandbox–Chromebooks are not only inexpensive to purchase, but also inexpensive to maintain. No expensive Office suites, no massive site-licenses for every single piece of software. Yet there’s a catch. The Wall Street Journal reports, “Google won’t make money from sales to individuals but expects to get an undisclosed cut from selling $28-a-month subscriptions to corporate customers and $20-a-month plans for educational institutions and governments. The plans, which come with a three-year term, include the laptops and customer support from Google.”

5. Internet connection required

See #3. Since it’s all based on the cloud, you’ll obviously need to be plugged into that cloud. Google has been working to make apps like Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Calendar work offline as well as they do online, but this is a work in progress.

Conclusion

While the Chromebooks have a lot going for them, how successful they end up–in education and the general consumer market–depends on factors that are difficult to foresee without actually using them on campuses and in districts. Multiple non-adult users of a cloud-based computers may present some challenges to “Acceptable Use” policies, and learners themselves will need to not only have Google accounts, but understand how to keep their information safe.

Which leads to a common criticism of such netbooks–the security of the cloud. While this is absolutely an issue moving forward–and includes Google’s somewhat concerning new take on privacy–using a PC or Mac doesn’t mean you’re not in the clouds. In 2012, unless you’re on a typewriter or use a pencil and paper, the cloud has access to you.

The Chromebooks appear wonderfully set to address the flexibility required by educational institutions. The key will be to see if Google’s app line-up, cloud support, and general digital infrastructure can support it all.