Chromebooks are the electric car of laptops

Chromebooks have to make their mark in education first, because they're too full of what-ifs for consumers right now.

The only people I know who own Chromebooks received them for free, from Google. In my case, I have two, both free. But despite the very small-bore hole Chromebooks have made in the laptop market, in the midst of a major project shakedown at Google headquarters, Chromebooks are, apparently, going to be around for a while, and the Chrome OS project has the CEO’s support.

The Register asked a Google product manager about where Chrome OS stands, and, to summarize, the answer is that Google doesn’t need to win in the retail sector yet, or maybe not any time soon, because they’re focused on the education field first, then retail and enterprise sectors next. Schools in 41 states are trying out Chromebooks, and three state education systems are buying 27,000 Chrome OS devices over the next three years, according to Caesar Sengupta, the product manager quoted by The Register.

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The sales pitch for Chrome OS is centered around simplicity. It’s simple for the user, because it’s nothing but a browser, something they already know how to use. It’s simple for the administrator at a school or business, because Google is constantly pushing out security and program updates for Chrome, and Chromebooks automatically update every time they restart. And in many models, it’s simple to get online: either you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, or your Chromebook falls back to a 3G cellular connection, of which you get 100 MB of free bandwidth every month for just-in-case working.

Gaining cachet with a core group of enthusiasts is probably the best strategy Google has for its Chromebooks. Whenever Chromebooks are reviewed or mentioned on most tech-related sites and in publications, they’re noted for costing just about the same as a cheaper Windows laptop, yet without the advantage of running the huge universe of Windows apps.

“But, wait,” you might say, “Can’t Google’s own apps recreate most of the tools we need on a Windows system?” To a large extent, yes, with Gmail, Docs, Calendar, and other services.

“But then again,” you chime in, “what about when you’re offline?” Gmail, Docs, and Calendar have some offline capabilities built in, and there are a growing number of offline apps in the Chrome Web Store.

“But what if I need to edit a photo in Photoshop while I’m on a plane? Or if I need to save a huge video file on my system? Or if I need to keep Dropbox running?”

That’s where the Chromebook discussion ends, at least for the moment. Google is probably right that many, many things can be done entirely online these days, and that their own tools provide some of the best ways to work in the cloud. But the Chromebook looks right now to the average laptop buyer like an all-electric car looks to the average car buyer: full of what-if questions and untested theories of living. If you’re working mostly inside a school or your home, or if your company can foot the bill for mobile data coverage, this is less of a concern. For the person footing their own Chromebook bill, though, it’s a conversation stopper.

Not everybody is down on Chrome OS. One writer at ExtremeTech strongly believes in Google’s “long game”. And this writer, too, enjoys the very long battery life, focus-aiding simplicity, and surprising capability of his Chromebook. But I’ve also hacked my Chromebook to dual-boot with Ubuntu, because, well, I’m geeky that way, and I like to prepare for what-ifs.

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