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Not Quite Ready to Live in the Cloud

Google’s impressive Chromebook Pixel - the latest in a series of devices which are trying to entice users to compute differently

Google’s impressive Chromebook Pixel is just the latest in a series of devices which are trying to entice users to compute in a different way. With (almost) ubiquitous connectivity, and an increasing reliance upon web-based services for mail, calendars, document creation and more, might we be reaching a point at which the browser really can be our means of accessing everything? Philosophically, the idea resonates. And yet, although I am not a power user who needs to regularly process video or edit high resolution images (the usual excuses for not embracing the Chromebook vision), I still remain uncomfortable with giving up my non-browser tools. Despite living and working in the cloud, I find that locally installed client software continues to deliver real value. Maybe, the next time I upgrade a computer, I need to try installing nothing more than a browser for a week or two, and see if it’s as painful as I feel it could be…

The cloud powers my business. The cloud is what I talk to clients about, it’s what I write about, it’s what people pay me to know about. The cloud (and, more generally, the web) make it possible for me to work with clients around the world, often without leaving a small market town in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Every piece of software I buy, install and use (except Microsoft Office, which I do still have to endure from time to time) is little more than a window onto the cloud. Most of those software tools have a web interface that I could use. Even tools which don’t (like OmniFocus) have competitors that do. So in principle I could do pretty well all of my mainstream tasks in a web browser. But I don’t. And I’m not yet sure that I want to.

chromebook-pixelOn one level, mainstays of my working day like Evernote, Reeder and Dropbox exist to ensure that the content I want is available on whichever device I’m using, whenever I need it. Desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile phone all access the same shared pool of content, banishing the old world in which either everything travelled on a USB stick or (more likely) the document you wanted was on your other device. Both Evernote and Dropbox (and other tools I use) have decent web interfaces. I could just use those, and (provided there’s a network connection) realise the same basic benefit of access to documents and data. But the desktop clients (and mobile apps) bring a degree of polish to the user experience that – to me – still seems to add real value. If nothing else, local caching makes them quicker. Indeed, Reeder is really just a local window onto a web-based service (the soon-to-die Google Reader). That dependency creates an interesting challenge for Reeder’s creator, following Google’s decision to shut down their service.

For email, calendaring and basic document creation, however, I’ve fully embraced the browser-based experience. Google Apps, running inside Chrome, with a few core extensions such as Rapportive. Here, locally installed software no longer adds any value for me. Blogging, too, mostly happens inside a WordPress editor these days. Offline editors like MarsEdit, although good, now languish unused on my hard drive. The boring financial side of my business is also entirely on the web, with everything handled on my bank’s web site or within FreeAgent‘s web-based tool.

And then there’s Skype. With no sign of Google Voice in Europe, Skype remains the mainstay for voice and video communication. And it only works if you’ve downloaded and installed the software. It would be difficult to rely upon a device which wouldn’t let me use Skype.

It’s certainly possible to do almost everything without locally installing any software, and that’s a remarkable step forward. But it’s really not clear that the web-only experience is good enough (yet) for people to embrace it by choice. Thin clients (like the Chromebook) may be cheaper than their Windows and OS X-powered equivalents, especially if sales volumes grow. They may be easier to manage, which must appeal to enterprise IT managers. But would an individual choose to buy one, except to save themselves a bit of money? Not yet, I suspect.

I’ve moved entirely from local email, calendar and blog clients to the web. I’ve moved mostly from local word processing to the web. How long will it be until the web interface for other services becomes our first choice, rather than a useful backup in those situations where you’re borrowing someone else’s computer? It will be interesting to see… The Chromebook (both the eye-wateringly expensive Pixel and cheaper variants) offers an interesting illustration of future potential. With the current state of web tools, though, today’s Chromebooks cannot be more than a niche play. It will not be many years before that changes, and light, fast, cheap, well-connected devices with great batteries become a valid choice for the majority of users in need of a device that isn’t a tablet or a smartphone.

Image © Google.

More Stories By Paul Miller

Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.

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