Elgan: Why Chromebooks will fail

Google wants to save the world from Windows with a browser-based, cloud-only laptop. But the cloud 'tortures users,' too.

Everyone wants what Microsoft's got, namely control of the most widely used computing platform. Or, more accurately, everyone wants the billions and billions of dollars that flow in from the dominance of desktop computing.

Replacing Windows shouldn't be hard. Everyone hates Windows, right?

That seems to be Google's thinking. The company announced this week that its shiny new Chromebooks will become available to order online starting June 15 in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Chromebooks are laptops powered by Google's Chromium, which is an open-source, browser-based operating system. The laptops will be built by Samsung and Acer, and they will be priced at $499 if you want 3G capability, with Wi-Fi-only models available for $429. They will be available at Best Buy and via Amazon.com.

You can also "rent" Chromebooks. Businesses will pay $28 per month and schools $20. Software updates are constant and automatic. Hardware replacement happens automatically with failures and new versions.

Unlike Chrome, which is Google's browser application, Chromium has a built-in Flash player, a PDF viewer, an automatic self-updater and other features.

Google claims that Chromebooks have multiple advantages over other computers, including USB storage, a limited file manager, offline use of apps and data, superfast boot times and 8.5 hours of battery life on a single charge. The company emphasizes that no data is lost when a machine is damaged, lost or stolen.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin offered this analysis: "With Microsoft, and other operating system vendors, I think the complexity of managing your computer is really torturing users. It's torturing everyone in this room. It's a flawed model fundamentally."

It shouldn't be too hard for Chromebooks to compete with "torture."

It's true that Windows computing can be painful and is a flawed model. But there's one major problem with Brin's statement: His sales pitch exists in a theoretical fantasy world where there is no distinction between personal and business computing.

When you think through the implications for these two markets separately, you can see that Chromebooks are best for neither.

Why Chromebooks aren't best for consumers

The idea that cloud-based computing is all about user happiness strains credulity. The whole purpose of cloud computing is to protect organizations from their users.

Chromebooks take away user freedom and control. Yet Google is pitching the concept as an attraction to consumers.

Corporations may initially like Google's cloud model because it fences users in and makes it impossible for users to break things. Schools might like Chromebooks because they will make it difficult for students to do things they're not supposed to do, such as download malicious code. But few consumers would choose limitations over freedom.

If consumers actually wanted browser-only computing, they would simply do browser-only computing. Nothing stops anyone from buying a $350 15-inch laptop at Walmart, downloading the Chrome browser and then doing all of their computing tasks inside Chrome.

Nobody does that because it's unappealing. People like to install applications, and they will do so if they can.

People who want to replace their "flawed" Windows PCs have an alternative that's superior to Chromebooks: namely, the app model invented by Apple for the iOS, and used by Google Android, HP's TouchPad and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook. App-based touch tablets solve the "torture" problem Brin highlighted, without the problems inherent in cloud-only computing.

And I'll just come right out and say it: Chromebooks are ugly. The hardware is ugly, and the Web is ugly, for the most part.

Thanks to the iPad, consumers have come to expect devices that are aesthetically beautiful, graphically appealing and fun. The Chromebook promises only drab utilitarianism. App-based touch tablets will be more popular for consumers than Chromebooks for the same reason that American Idol is more popular than C-SPAN.

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