Another dot in the blogosphere?

Are Chromebooks the new netbooks?

Posted on: January 7, 2014

Do you remember netbooks? I am referring to those small, underpowered computers that emerged like desert blooms only to disappear almost as quickly as they appeared.

I not only remember them, I still have one gathering dust in a drawer. I will probably salvage its hard drive and repurpose it for networked storage. I also had a few others that I used in a research project about five years ago. They have been since wiped clean and condemned.

The netbook might have been ahead of its time. They were small, relatively light, cheap, and powerful enough to browse the web. While people complained about the small keyboard, it was useful for kids and adults with really small hands.

Now consider the rise of the Chromebook. CNET declares As Chromebooks catch on, 2014 promises more models.

Might we see another boom and bust? What is different about the rise of another series of seemingly underpowered devices?

Between the netbook and the Chromebook were multitouch devices like the iPhone and slate devices.

Video source

People have come to expect to manipulate objects on the screen by touch. You can see this in young children who try to manipulate any screen this way or the behavior of people at malls with TV directories.

People have also learnt to divide what they do according to the device they have at hand. Previously people used to complain that an iPad was not a PC. Now they have learnt what they can do better on an iPad than on a PC, e.g., read, follow a hashtag while watching TV, have a FaceTime conversation, or even some forms of gaming. Lean forward activities happen on a PC; lean back activities happen on slates.

People also realize that devices need only be powerful enough or have enough capacity. It used to only be about processor speed, amount of memory, or storage space. Now, it is about cloud computing, cloud storage, wireless access, and streaming in real-time.

Netbooks lived in a Windows XP world. That was the world of the PC with point and click, typing, and locally housed programs and files. Usability and performance were poor and you got the feeling that you were sending in a boy to do a man’s job. Despite being called netbooks, going online to conduct some worthwhile activity over an extended period seemed to be an afterthought.

Chromebooks have a new ecosystem to flourish in. Chromebooks have the might of Google behind them and Google’s Apps, OS, and web browser system. The whole point of Chromebooks is to dwell in the cloud. It is the return of the thin client.

I think that Chromebooks that keep costs low while catering to niche markets (like education or even some enterprise systems) are more likely to succeed. These are markets where the limitations of the device are not weaknesses but strengths or even desirable traits.

What might cause Chromebooks to go the way of netbooks? It is hard to say. But I would wager that a couple of non-Chromebook factors determine its fate.

The first is the availability of ubiquitous wifi, or in its absence, 3G/4G/LTE connections. Most Chromebooks do not have the latter, and if they do, they are an added initial and longer term cost.

The second is the fickle mindset of users. One might argue that it is just as easy to read, respond to hashtags on TV, video conference, or game on a fully featured laptop. If they already have a device that is lean forward and lean back, why get another that offers a subset of the performance? It must become socially and culturally acceptable or expected to do certain things on certain devices.

Google needs to sell that idea the same way Apple sold (and continues to sell) their devices as lifestyle products. They need to convincingly complete the remainder of this sentence: You need this Chromebook because…

Third, Google needs to stop sabotaging itself. Its cloud-based apps are key to its success. Anything linked to it and the Chromebook contribute to its success. If Google keeps taking away things like Google Reader, or tweaks YouTube and Google Sites so regularly or infrequently that certain features do not work in its own Chrome browser, then this antagonizes and alienates their users.

I would love to see Google Chromebooks succeed especially if their low cost enables social good. Unlike netbooks, they have a better ecosystem and timing. But Google needs to tackle factors like user access, mindsets, and experience if it does not want to go the way of the netbook dodo.

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