Google's Chromebook - lost in the cloud?
- 22 June 2011
- From the section Technology
It's the device which Google believes could change the face of computing. The Chromebook puts computing into the browser, where the device itself becomes less and less important because all of your data is stored in the cloud.
I've been trying one for the last couple of days - and my feeling is that it may be so far ahead of its time that it will struggle to find an audience.
The Chromebook I've been using is made by Samsung - other manufacturers are promising their own variants, but in the UK this is the first one to go on sale.
The good news is that it's an attractive looking laptop with a high-resolution screen which springs into action moments after you open the lid - no twiddling your thumbs while an old-fashioned operating system boots up.
Because here, the operating system is Chrome, Google's web browser. You immediately find yourself in a Chrome window, and open more tabs to get to more places. Great for browsing the web at speed - but what happens if I want to write a document?
Well that too has to happen in the browser window, probably in Google Docs. And where's the e-mail program? You'll need web-based mail - and you'll probably choose Gmail.
Your photos will have to be online - and Google will want you to choose Picasa for that, and your music will also be in the cloud, though unless you're in the United States you will have to choose an alternative to Google Music.
But what about the apps that you might need - from a Twitter client to a calendar to photo editing software? Well there is a limited range of apps which you can install and will pop up full screen, but if you want to do anything complex like video editing this would not be the machine for it.
And if you want to use something which isn't on the store, like Skype, it seems you're out of luck - your video chats will have to be through the rival Google service.
There is only limited storage - 16 GB - as the theory is you will be keeping everything on the cloud. I found it disconcerting to have no desktop, no obvious place where I could see my stuff.
And when I took the Chromebook onto the BBC Breakfast sofa this morning Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams asked me the question which will doubtless trouble many potential buyers - how safe is all my data in the cloud?
Later on, when I met the Google Chrome boss Sundar Pichai, he pointed out that we are all already keeping lots of data on the cloud without realising - that's where all our Facebook activities are, for instance.
But that doesn't mean we are all that comfortable with the idea, especially when the headlines are full of stories about data being hacked from supposedly secure outfits like Sony.
But the biggest issue with this "always on" device is that most of us aren't always on. Until internet connectivity is a lot better, there will always be times when we're offline. So, for instance, I was trying to read a Google document on the Chromebook on the way to meet Mr Pichai - but Google told me I was offline so I couldn't see it.
Now if I'd had the 3G version of Samsung's laptop I might have been better placed - and Sundar Pichai said Google was working to make several key applications available offline, including documents and Gmail.
Google, home of many of the world's smartest computer scientists, believes that the Chrome operating system on a lightweight connected device is an idea whose time has come. But what the firm seems to lack is a very precise idea of what consumers want, and what surprises and delights them.
A laptop, however nicely presented, looks outdated in an age where people looking to do a little light web surfing are now turning to tablet computers or smartphones.
In many ways, this is an idea ahead of its time but I'm afraid my final verdict is that the Chromebook is everything you ever wanted from a laptop - and a whole lot less.