Okay a little confession first, I don’t have a “Chromebook” per se, but I do have a 17" Fujitsu laptop running the Cloud Ready Operating System from Neverware, which is based on the Chromium OS. In fact I am typing this article on this computer right now. I have been using it for around 2 weeks now, along with my daily work computer, a 11" MacBook Air. Since I am a student major in Computer Science, I spent most of my time with my MBA to use all sorts of development tools, from IDEs to terminal stuff, etc. But when I go back home and just want to relax, I would consider using the Chromebook (I will just call it a Chromebook in this article even though it is not because reasons). And I have to tell you, it is actually pretty awesome.
The reason why I install CloudReady on my laptop is because for some reason the Windows just won’t stay alive. Maybe something’s wrong with the SSD I installed a couple years ago, after about 10 time of successful boot up, it would just give up and stuck at the start-up screen. I have reinstalled Windows 7 for about 4 times now, and 2 weeks ago I finally gave up. I removed every drives, put in an old 320GB hard disk, install the freaking CloudReady. I have been using Chrome on the previous life of the laptop, and occasionally on my MacBook Air (BTW Safari on Mac feels a lot better than Chrome on Mac), and I have known Chrome OS a lot time from all the Tech sites, but I have never actually use one. And unsurprisingly, it is not difficult to use for me at all. After logged in into my Google account, every bookmarks and extensions got automatically installed, which is nice. I installed a couple more apps, like Spotify and Slack, and got the whole thing working properly and smoothly.
I mostly use the machine to watch YouTube videos, browse random websites, and listen to musics. As a programmer, Chrome OS is really not a platform for me to work. Yes there are a few Cloud IDEs, a whole bunch of text editors, and Stack Overflow and GitHub are on the internet anyway, but all the Cloud IDE I have tested sucks (or at least not good enough. JetBrains FTW!), and I just prefer switching between windows on my 11" MBA instead of copying stuff between the 2 laptops. Not to mention it is basically a joke to try to write mobile apps on the cloud. Android Studio and Xcode are crucial to the development. So it would seems that I should hate the device, but I don’t because programming is not the only thing I do, and I can totally see why it is suitable for a lot of people.
The very obvious market that Chromebook is winning is the education, and it should not be surprising at all. Just think about what kind of software you use when you are in primary/secondary school (or middle/high school as you Americans call it right?). A lot of them are available on the internet, and for those that does not, alternatives are not difficult to find either. Need Word/Excel/Powerpoint? Not only is Google Docs/Sheets/Slides free, you don’t have to worry about how to store them and pass them around; Want students to practice typing? You know thousands if not millions of typing exercises and games exist online right? Want students to learn more about some science topic? You can choose Wikipedia for a brief introduction, other online encyclopedia for more information, Quora/Reddit/etc to ask questions, and YouTube for a more interactive experience. Plus the low(er) price of the devices compare to other devices, it is not difficult for schools to choose Chrome-OS equipped devices. However, I do think there are still several categories of people/market that would find Chrome-OS devices suitable for their needs:
Firstly, Journalist. I don’t know a lot about the industry, but from what I know I feel like most of their tasks involves keeping in touch with people, and of course writing. I think both of them don’t really require a USD$1300 MacBook, or even a USD$900 MacBook Air. Yes a cheap Windows laptop can do the job, but there is a reason people ditch Windows and switch to Mac: in a lot of ways Mac OS X is more user-friendly and easy to use, and Chrome OS also shares similar traits. Neither of them got any blostwear(Although you could say some of the Mac apps are kind of necessary), both of them have next to no viruses, both of them (at least of the Chromebooks at least) have decent if not good keyboards, and both of them got at least decent touch pad and don’t really require a touch screen to ensure it works well(Windows 10 is a lot better than 8 and 8.1 but there are still bits and pieces of stupid stuff everywhere). Touch screens on laptops is always going to be a work around, and if I get a notebook with a touch pad I expect it to work well. And if you get the right Chromebook, the battery life is also going to be decent enough to get you through the day, with half or even 1/3 of the cost. And from what I know, even Skype is available as a web app now, so most of the software and features that a journalist would need are available on Chrome OS devices. Okay maybe except printing, which sucks on every freaking platform anyway.
Secondly, normal people, and by normal people I mean those who use their home computer as nothing but a facebook machine. And Chrome OS devices are suitable for them for obvious reasons. And in case you don’t understand why, here’s why: facebook is a website, and you can use the browser in the Chrome OS (i.e. the whole OS) to visit the facebook website. The end.
With such a large amount of potential customers (at least that’s what I thought), a lot more things needs to be done. Otherwise, a lot of them may find the device lacking features, or not providing a good enough user experience. Here’s some things I think Chrome OS can improve on.
One of the direction I hope the team at Google can spent more time on is the internationalization of the platform. Computers have been a platform for people that speaks English since the birth of, well computers. And created by a US company, Chrome OS is no exception. Yes there are different input methods on Chrome OS, but those are not good enough. I personally find the Chinese IME not good enough, not only is it kind of confusing how to switch between languages, the experience is not as fluent as typing on Windows/Mac laptops or even on my Android phone. I think Chrome-OS devices can be a pretty good option for developing countries, because they are usually more affordable while delivering a better user experience in long term. There are no viruses (yet), no annoying Windows 10 update, and the device just generally feels like they can hang on to their performance for a longer time. If the Chrome OS team can put more effort on making the platform more user friendly to people that does not speaks English, it would be a much more compelling options for them.
Another direction I think they should improve on is offline access. About a week ago rumors pops up about the support of Android Apps on Chrome OS devices, which is pretty awesome. I have been living in Cambodia for around 3 months for volunteer work, and the internet connection there is a lot worse than what you get in first world countries, in terms of both speed and stability. Any video chat is next to impossible, and even audio call sucks on Skype and FaceTime, while Slack audio call works surprisingly well. Another example is YouTube, which I have gave up and use the offline feature to download and watch 144p videos. Not only that, Internet access is not a very common thing in those developing countries, and even for those who have access, the cost is still relatively high for them. In this case, the existence of offline access becomes very important. Internet is rare for them, and they need offline usable software not because they are just travelling or the router is restarting, they need them because they ran out of data for the month, or they left the expensive western cafe with free Wi-Fi. Things like the partially download Google Drive is not good enough for them, and that’s why bad Windows laptop is still the norm in Cambodia. It’s not that they like Windows or the software, it’s just that it is basically the only option when you are not rich.
While the team at Google is working on improvements, other companies are not waiting, and some of them come up with decent competitors. Recently high-end tablets starts to become “a thing”, including the iPad Pro, Pixel C and the Surface Pro (Microsoft actually see this coming, but it takes 3/4 tries for them to make it right). And in one episode of the Vergecast, someone mentioned the fact that these high-end tablets are actually great replacement for low-end shitty laptops, and it makes sense. For people in developed countries, we brought shitty laptops usually as a secondary device, doing less intensive stuff, or some people just want a device with keyboard and can easily connect to printer in case they need to, and most of the time that would just be a Facebook machine. For those people, high-end tablets actually makes quite a lot of sense, because most of the tablets have a decent keyboard accessories, which makes productivity tasks possible, they all have decent screens and good performance, and they can find most of not all of the things they need to do on the tablets, like facebook, check email and news, upload pictures, and even some simple photo editing. Meanwhile, Chromebooks and friends are also very good at those tasks, and most of them does not cost as much as those tablets. The 2 things that those tablets still does better is the display and the form factor. All of the good high-end tablets comes with excellent retina screens, while most of the screens of Chromebooks sucks. Also, tablets are tablets, i.e. they were born to be used without keyboards, and that could make using those devices on planes or bed easier, especially when you are just watching videos and stuff. Even though there are some Chromebooks with touch screens and Yoga-style devices, Chrome OS itself is not design for touch screen in the first place, and if all you want to do is stream videos, the experience of using the touch screen with a native app on a tablets would probably be better than using the touch screen on the website of the streaming service on the Chromebook. However, some might argue that the form-factor of tablets also means that it would be more awkward for doing productive tasks, and while that’s true, I think that it’s just a matter of implementation. For example, the Pixel C creates a devices that you can basically use on your lap, while no Chromebooks makes it comfortable for you to use it on the small table on the plane, especially when the asshole decided to lean all the way back. So I have to give this point to tablet for now.
Chrome OS devices have evolved a lot, and it is also getting better faster than ever before. I think with it actually starts to become a viable replacement for home computers for a lot people, a lot more improvements are also needed to make it an actual competitors against Mac and Windows devices (and Linux I guess?). And until then, a Mac will remain my daily driver, and probably for most of my friends as well.