Yesterday Google announced technical details, ship dates and prices for a new line of laptops it hopes customers will buy without thinking of them as actual computers.
The line of Chromebooks it announced with OEM partners Samsung and Acer may look like laptops, but they're actually windows onto the Internet, where all a user's documents, applications and private, inadequately secured data are kept.
Chromebooks have many similarities with laptops, but the similarities are purely for the convenience of potential customers and the limitations of their simian data-input methods, and narrow data-absorption mechanisms, not because they're important to the Chromebook itself.
Even the Chromebook itself isn't important.
"Your apps, documents and settings are stored safely in the cloud," Google promises in its pitch to customers, ignoring that the words "safely" and "cloud" aren't used together all that often, especially so soon after a days-long downage on the best available public cloud (Amazon) and weeks-long pwnage of one of the most popular (Sony).
"Even if you lose your computer you can just log in to another Chromebook and get right back to work," Google chortles, undoubtedly generating some uncomfortable squirming from Samsung and Acer, which like to think their hardware is more than just a throwaway manual tool for probing something you're really interested in –the IT version of a Q-Tip, not the Personal Computer that brings Information and Power to the People.
The Chromebook is evidence the smug, almost-true triumphalism of the PC industry is a thing of the past, but not that the new almost-true triumphalism of the Internet era is any more true than the earlier tropes.
PCs allowed individual workers to accomplish far more than they did without PCs; they allowed far more access to and control over information, greater speed in business and engineering and almost everything else they touched.
They also cost a lot more, introduced new sets of difficulties and fauxs pas, and consistently failed to live up to the limit of their promise.
So far, so has the Internet, which is widely accessible, but not universally; highly available, but not invariably; incredibly rich in information, applications and ways to communicate with other people across boundaries no one ever thought could be crossed. It does not cross all those barriers, connect every single one of those people or offer information that is unquestionably accurate or infinitely rich.
No matter how rich the online resources or speed of access, there are times, topics, private data and insecure locations that make us wish to do our jobs and manage our information offline rather than on, sometimes even on paper that we carry around with us, even when we know paper is not a data format the Internet accepts.
Chromebook is an improvement in many ways over laptops. Google says it will boot in eight seconds, awake instantly after powering down, be connected in almost every cellular, wireless and wired way available, and give users access to all the best of the Internet and their own data.
They come with security already built in – including sandboxes, data encryption and recovery, automatic updates and verifications on boot that it's good code, not malware running.
They should be cheaper to manage because all the user data is stored online and all the admin work can be done remotely.
They should be cheaper to provision for apps and services because – as with the overly complex, overly expensive virtual desktop technologies that have found only limited acceptance – IT doesn't have to touch the machine to make any changes.
They have some onboard storage, and Google's apps and OS are able to cache data so users can work when they're disconnected.
They will run quickly, or should, because they're not encumbered by 30 years worth of failsafes and workarounds in an operating system designed to do everything for everyone right on the PC – the way Windows and MacOS do.
At prices between $349 and $499, they're not as cheap as you'd think.
They'll be more expensive, too, because they're designed to have full-time data connections through cell carriers, rather than relying on WiFi or wired networks.
WiFi-only versions are cheaper to buy and cheaper to run, of course.
Businesses will have to pay $28 per month just for web-based management, support and auto-updates.
In computer-science-philosophical terms, Chromebook is a huge departure from run-of-the-mill PCs. They reverse the burden of work by putting most of the responsibility on the network and little on the device.
They also will prompt many to create more coherent online personalities and resource sets so they can use the same computing environment whether they're on a Chromebook, an iPhone or a laptop at the office.
That will help push back the most consistent perverse reality in information technology: that most people don't want to computers, they want to accomplish things.
To accomplish things, they have to learn how to use computers, and then spend time doing it.
That's just operational overhead. Chromebook may help reduce that.
It will not convert the IT universe to total web-centrism, eliminate the need, benefits or problems with local storage of data, and will not bring another wave of excited end users to the cloud to store all their private data and conduct all their business.
They will form a beachhead, however, for devices we'll use more like smartphones with giant keyboards than computers with tiny hard drives.
Chromebook is another wave of the rebellion of smartphones against PCs, not a rebellion of the web against the PC.
Chromebooks are another example that end users need a variety of physical tools to accomplish what they want to accomplish – some have to be small, light and easy to use for voice conversations. Some have to be fast, easy to type with and carrying a big, high-definition screen.
Both end up being niche products among the panoply of devices consumers will use to access the web and do their jobs. "Niche" in that context isn't pejorative, though, because every type of device becomes more equal. They're not all just peripherals to the mighty PC on which users anchor all their computing.
It's not the PC that will go away, just the anchor that prevents us from getting too far away from it.