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.

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Why Chromebooks aren't best for business

Yes, Windows PCs "torture" users. But so does the cloud.

Browsers aren't perfectly secure and reliable, and neither are Internet connections or websites.

Personally, I use three browsers: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer. I do this because each browser has its own limitations and problems. I've been struggling with the most recent version of Firefox -- it crashes and does other weird things. So I've been using Chrome more as an alternative. But Chrome doesn't have my needed Firefox plug-ins. And it doesn't support RSS. I use each for different tasks. But when I hit a brick wall with both, I use Internet Explorer as my browser of last resort.

Chromebooks wouldn't give you this choice. If Google releases a flawed update, you're stuck with it. If it breaks your plug-ins, too bad. If it doesn't support your favorite website, tough luck.

Besides, if Chrome is so great, why doesn't Google use Android on it?

Internet connections can have problems, too. Both 3G and Wi-Fi have their own sets of challenges. Mobile broadband connections don't connect in many locations. Home Wi-Fi routers can stop working. Of course, these things also happen with regular PCs. And Google is working hard to enable offline browsing. But when my connection is down with a PC, at least I can still use all my applications and files.

Here's the most important thing: The Internet itself can't be trusted to handle 100% of our computing needs.

Google's own Blogger service went down for more than 24 hours this week. To restore service, Google rolled back to an older, backed-up version, which didn't include 30 hours of blog posts for Google's millions of users. As I was writing this column, Google was working to restore the lost posts.

Such disruptions happen all the time, even for cloud-based services that are supposed to be bulletproof. Amazon's EC2 website hosting service -- which exists to provide fail-safe, totally reliable hosting -- experiences catastrophic outages. The most recent outage occurred in April. The glitch took down Foursquare, Reddit, Quora and other major services. It took Amazon four days -- four days! -- to return service to normal.

Cloud computing is great, but only in combination with "regular" computing. The only reliable way to manage data is to store and back up locally, and also to the cloud.

The Chromebook model requires the user to have a fully functional machine, browser, connection and Web services. Without each and every one of these elements working perfectly, a Chromebook is nothing but a tray for serving snacks.

The big question is this: Do you trust Google to keep this program going?

Google has gained a reputation lately of simply canceling projects that aren't working out. The company has killed off Wave, Lively, Answers, Dodgeball, Video and other high-visibility projects. People start getting excited about a platform, then one day Google makes an announcement, pulls the plug and that's it.

Even more relevant is the cancellation of Google's Nexus One phone. Google came up with a new way to sell phones and rolled it out in January, 2010. The Nexus One was available only online, and unlocked. Google assumed that users would be happy to provide tech support to each other, and so the company didn't set up any way to support users. They assumed wrong. The phone was taken off the market in July.

The question on the minds of businesses considering the Chromebook is this: Will Google end support?

Businesses are used to buying equipment from companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM and others that tend to support their products even if they're not runaway successes. And they provide migration plans if they do end product lines.

If a company is going to buy 300 Chromebooks and reorganize its IT department accordingly, it's going to need assurances that the platform will be supported for at least a decade. I haven't heard Google give that assurance.

The Chromebook's cloudy future

Google says one advantage of Chromebooks is that they don't have applications that need to be patched and updated. But that isn't true. Web-based apps get updated. The difference is that those updates happen without the knowledge, consent or control of either the user or the IT administrator.

This reminds me of the myth that cloud computing doesn't involve servers or hard drives. Of course it does.

The Chromebook proposition is not the absence of software, patches, servers and hard drives. It's the removal of these things from your control.

Who wants that?

The Chromebook idea sounds cool in theory. But in practice, a cloud-based laptop isn't best for consumers, and it's not best for business. The Chromebook will fail.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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