So... I Bought a Chromebook


When writing, at least about technology, I try to obey a few simple rules I've setup for myself.  First, be as neutral as possible and keep opinions out of the piece, and second, never use absolutes when dealing with developing technology.  So I should have known I was setting myself up for failure when in 28:3 I wrote:

"I cannot fathom an individual purchasing a ChromeOS computer for anything near the cost of a more traditional system."

Well, here I am just three months after my somewhat negative article "Introduction to ChromeOS" went to print, and I'm about to pull the trigger on purchasing a new Acer Chromebook.  How did I get here?  What changed my mind?  Funny story...

A Holiday to Remember

On December 21, 2011 my home was broken into and essentially everything electronic was stolen.  Being the good little digital warrior that I am, I had backups of pretty much everything, though there were a few notable exceptions.  Due to an oversight on my part, I lost an article I was writing for 2600 that was about 90% complete (sorry folks).

Once I verified I had more or less all of my data safely backed up, and got one of my older machines ready to take on the role of my primary computer, it was time to consider what I should do about my stolen CR-48 Chromebook.  Over the past year the CR-48 had become an increasingly useful item in our household, as my wife got very used to the ability to jump on the Chromebook while I was working on the primary computer (especially since "working" on the computer often meant it would not, in fact, be working for some time afterwards).

My first thought was to simply get a cheap netbook and install Linux on it, but as I looked online I was surprised to see that the entry price of netbooks had somewhat inflated since the last time I looked, to the point that I wasn't going to get a machine worth owning for anything less than $300.  Then, of course, there was the anxiety about hardware support.  Would I be able to use all of the device's hardware without relying on proprietary binary blob drivers which may decide to stop functioning with a new kernel release?  Then I would have to do the maintenance on it, making sure I kept the machine updated and hoping none of the upgrades go wrong...

It was right around here that I realized what the value of the Chromebook actually was.  It wasn't that it allowed tighter integration with Google's services, or allowed me to keep all my information in the "cloud," it's real value was that it ran open-source software, kept itself updated without asking, and it always worked.

Linux for Grandmothers

This realization about ChromeOS got a few other ideas going around in my head.  For years, the Linux community has been waiting and hoping for the "Year of Desktop Linux," that magical day when the average consumer could walk into a Best Buy, purchase a Linux powered machine, then go home and actually know how to use it.  Needless to say, we've never gotten there and honestly I didn't think the day was ever going to happen - until the Chromebook that is.

I get the sneaking suspicion that Google managed to deliver on the promise of a desktop Linux for the masses without even realizing it, and apparently, without anyone in the community noticing either.  While the argument could be made (perhaps by Google themselves) that ChromeOS is anything but a desktop OS, there is no debating that it puts GNU/Linux into a package that nearly anyone can use.  With a Chromebook, you can now use an open-source operating system without actually knowing what an open-source operating system is.

Technically it's not the first time this has happened, as you may recall that all the first generation netbooks shipped with various Linux distributions to help bring the end user cost as low as possible (though later Microsoft developed an aggressive pricing scheme for XP and managed to remove the price advantage of going with Linux).  It's not the first big break for desktop Linux, but it's unquestionably the best supported, as the coffers and advertising might Google brings to the table can be used to great effect to push a new product or service.

While I can now appreciate the value a Chromebook offers, especially since the price for the entry level Acer model is down to $300, I still don't necessarily agree that it's ready for prime time.  It's admittedly an excellent device for rapidly accessing the Internet, as it's boot time and low overhead can get you online in literally seconds.  Beyond that, even my Android tablet (well, before it was stolen at least) is still infinitely more capable.

I'm not a Grandmother

I would like to tell you that in the time since I wrote my last article to now, ChromeOS has made leaps and bounds in terms of functionality.  But honestly, I can't think of a single major feature that has been added since then which impacts usability.  Things haven't gotten worse, and there have been incremental touch ups and improvements throughout the OS, but nothing groundbreaking.

Accordingly, I still stand by more or less everything I said in 28:3; ChromeOS is at best a secondary operating system.  There is still no way I could use a Chromebook as my primary machine, and if I didn't have a backup computer in place to take over for my stolen machine, I would have spent the $300 on a cheap laptop and dealt with flaky hardware and questionable software support.  I would much rather suffer through some aggravation and end up with a proper computer that I could actually use for development and content creation.

That said, I do have to give credit where it's due, and mention that Google has still not made any attempt to block the installation of alternate operating systems on Chromebook hardware or impede the more technical user from installing native Linux programs and libraries.  At this point, I suppose it's safe to assume that Google doesn't have a problem with the more advanced user modifying their Chromebook software a bit.  Of course, as Google doesn't make any money on the hardware itself, I suppose they couldn't care less if you buy a Chromebook from Acer or Samsung and blow ChromeOS off of it, so long as you eventually use some of Google's services and let them make ad revenue off of you.

Motivation aside, the upshot of Google's indifference is that I'm still able to go into Developer Mode on a Chromebook and drop a few choice Linux programs into /home.  This lets me have my few must-have tools while still keeping the machine usable to the rest of my household.  While there are a few annoying hoops to jump through (like not being able to launch local software from the GUI itself), I find there's just enough capability there to keep me from formatting the thing and installing a different OS.

Conclusion (Second Attempt)

I ended "Introduction to ChromeOS" in 28:3 on a rather sour note, so I'm going to use this do-over conclusion as a chance to clarify my thoughts on ChromeOS a bit.

Some of the things I took issue with at the beginning of the year have started to waver a bit, such as the conceptual limitations on what you can do from within the web browser.  That is still mostly true, though Google has started experimenting with "Native Client," a way for web applications to run native code on the local machine (rather than having to use some interpreted language from within the web page).  Native Client, when it becomes more developed, should allow for considerably more advanced web applications than what we're used to.  There have already been a few demonstrations, such as a port of MAME that runs in the browser, that show what's possible once developers get onboard with it.

On the other hand, some of my gripes look like they are here to stay.  For example, while the aesthetics of the Chrome Web Store have changed quite a bit, it's still riddled with glorified bookmarks.  Even after a year, I have yet to see an "app" in the Web Store which really takes advantage of ChromeOS and presents something you couldn't do just as easily on any other system capable of running the Chrome browser.

With all that being said, I have to concede that a Chromebook does have it's place, and yes, you may even pay "near the cost of a more traditional system" for one.