It seems like high time I should take a few minutes and provide an update on what it's like to live with a ChromeOS laptop, specifically Google's CR-48, on a daily basis.
Here's one example: I'm writing this at Starbucks, using the built-in Verizon 3G, after having just posted an update to my parish's website, of which I am the webmaster. It's pretty crowded in here right now, and I frankly wouldn't be all that excited about using the free WiFi here. For one thing, there are at least a dozen people with laptops open, and I have no idea if any of them are running Firesheep. It's an unsecured WiFi network, so it's entirely possible for someone to be sitting in here grabbing usernames and passwords out of the air as the packets fly by. It's tremendously reassuring to be sitting here using the CR-48's built-in 3G connection, and not worrying about it.
But that's just an isolated example. The day-in, day-out experience of using the CR-48 is admittedly a mixed bag. The tricky thing is to separate the experience of the hardware from the experience of using the OS. The hardware is actually rather nice, although it has a few rough spots (the trackpad being one). The OS is, as everyone knows, basically just the Chrome browser running in full-screen mode, and is Linux behind the scenes. This is a good thing. It means no worries about viruses, spyware, and all the other bad things that you expose yourself to when you run Windows. As a Mac user otherwise, that's important to me. It also means, however, that things are just a bit rougher around the edges than a Mac user is going to be used to. If you're the type of person who finds that sort of thing maddening, you won't be happy.
Fortunately, that doesn't describe me. I'm not all that bothered by a few rough edges here and there if it does what I want it to, and ChromeOS definitely does what I want it to. My life is on the web. A laptop with built-in 3G is a dream come true. It means I'm free from the need to find WiFi when I'm out. Wherever I go, I have a solid mobile broadband connection available whenever I need it. I like that.
At home, I find myself using the CR-48 more and more. Compared to my MacBook Pro, it's lighter, runs cooler, and having both WiFi and Verizon 3G, it has a more reliable internet connection (yes, I'm looking at you, AT&T). Once again, I must note that I'm not doing video editing, ripping CDs, or opening multi-page Excel spreadsheets. I'm on Twitter, Facebook, and Seesmic Web. I'm posting via Blogger. I'm editing documents in Google Docs. I'm administering my parish website, managing domain registration and DNS records online. For what I need, it works, and it works tremendously well. The CR-48 will never be sold in stores, but when the first ChromeOS laptops go on sale later this year, I think they'll do quite well if they're sold at the right price. If it meets your needs, there are some real advantages to the ChromeOS model.
And that's really the question you have to ask yourself when considering something like the CR-48. Do you need a full-featured laptop, or can you live with something that is basically a gateway to the Web? I suspect that most people would do quite well with it. Increasingly, I think that people are going to be doing more and more of their tasks in the cloud. That's certainly my experience. When I consider cloud computing versus local offline computing, the negatives of doing everything locally far outweigh the negatives of always needing an internet connection. The reality today is that anywhere you can get cell reception, you can get internet access. That's huge.
In the end, it's actually kind of interesting. When you read science fiction novels from the 1940s and 1950s, computers are usually depicted as huge central processing units that people access through terminals. With the advent of the personal computer in the 1980s, that model changed radically. But now, the internet is bringing everything back to where we started. It isn't exactly the Univac, Multivac and Galactic AC that Asimov wrote about sixty years ago, but it's functionally the same thing. The CR-48 is essentially a terminal to a huge central computer called the Internet, and I'm perfectly happy with that.
I love living in the future…