Chromebooks - has the future arrived?

Chromebooks - has the future arrived?


It seems like an age ago since Google first announced ChromeOS and certainly there's been a lot written about it, including a fair bit in this magazine. Now that the launch of Chromebook models from two manufacturers is imminent, it might be worth reminding ourselves of some of the issues around a "Cloud-based OS" generally, and this one in particular.

What is 'The Cloud'?

There is no real definition of what "the cloud" is. It's like 'Intellectual Property': it's pretty much a marketing term which can be redefined to mean whatever you want. When I use it here, I'm referring to a cloud OS as something where all data and user-level applications are on the World Wide Web. Pretty much the only thing on the hardware itself is a basic disk OS and a web browser. I'm sure more detailed and complex definitions of both a cloud OS and/or ChromeOS may be available, but this will definitely do for this article.

Privacy and Data

This is always going to be the big issue as far as a cloud-based OS is concerned. If you as a user are expected to store all your data online then you are putting it (and plenty more) at risk. There have been enough examples of online data being accessed by unauthorised people to make an entire OS built around this principle a concern. Whilst it's true that many people do not make much effort in securing their data on their local-storage computers, to some extent that data is protected by being behind a locked door. Yes, giving said computers web access opens them up but the fact is that the the average person's data by itself is not that attractive to miscreants. However put all that data together in a single (or group of) server and suddenly the data becomes much more attractive. With that attraction comes a heightened risk. As an analogy it's like the difference between everyone storing their saving in a safe in their house. The prospect of doing all those break-ins was not very attractive to thieves. However put all of that money in a single safe at the bank and suddenly the return-for-effort factor makes the whole thing more attractive.

If ChromeOS allowed me to store my data in a server of my choosing and possibly to have different apps store it in different places then at least the data would revert to being more under my control

So if ChromeOS allowed me to store my data in a server of my choosing and possibly to have different apps store it in different places, then at least the data would revert to being more under my control. True, many users of these Chromebooks probably won't care, but without even the option there is no point in educating them on the folly of their abandon.

Access

ChromeOS is designed and marketed as "cloud-based", with Wi-fi and 3G access (there are Wi-fi-only models as well). This immediately presents itself to me as a particular issue. What happens when you can't get a connection? Is there an off-line option? My research suggests not but to be honest much of what's written is either marketing from Google or the manufacturers or it is pretty much guesswork on tech-review sites eager for search engine rankings.

I'd imagine the target market for Chromebooks will be the netbook/tablet one. Most of the times I've seen those devices being used is at conferences or in coffee shops. There's a reason for this -- there's usually a half-decent Wi-fi connection around those places. So in that respect a Chromebook will fit right in but when the Internet connection gets a little flaky what happens? What happens to a document you are half-way through when the Internet connection drops? I am sure Google will have thought of this but so far I've not seen much in the way of offered resolution.

To print from a Chromebook you will need to print to a printer that has an online presence. So not only do you get to share your data with Google, you get to share your printer too

While I am at it, let's talk about printing. As Chromebooks do everything "in the cloud", printing locally becomes a problem. The solution appears to be putting your local printer online and printing to it through Google's servers. Yes you read that right but I'll say it again: To print from a Chromebook, you will need to print to a printer that has an online presence. So not only do you get to share your data with Google, you get to share your printer too. Okay so in truth most users will save their document in Googledocs and print them from a non-cloud computer which has a local printer attached, but even so for me that's another inconvenience.

Apps

No self-respecting device can be launched without a myriad of "apps". In Chromebook's case these are web-apps for the Chrome browser. Some are free, some are try-before-you-buy posing as free and some are straight up commercial apps. None that I have seen are free in the sense we speak of in this magazine. I don't always agree 100% with Richard Stallman (brace for flames) but he's right when he says:

"It's just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's web server, you're defenceless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software." Richard Stallman as quoted in The Guardian 29 Sep 2008

There's also another concern here for us free software users. The licence of these web-apps is not mentioned on the "Chrome app store". Google is probably correct in their assumption that most ChromeOS users will be concerned with cost over freedom but never-the-less the absence of licencing information moves the issue away from the psyche of the computer-using public. When you think of how long it has taken to get freedom in computing as far as it is now, omitting such information just encourages people to ignore issues like freedom and privacy. The cynic may say this plays into Google's (and other computing companies) hands, certainly it's paid off on Android. What started being known as a "Linux-based" mobile OS is now known as "Android from Google". As with all such important -- but ultimately somewhat boring -- matters, like security, privacy and freedom are being sacrificed on the altar not of low-cost but of convenience. As long as it's easy to do, the sacrifice you have to make is ignored.

As with all such important -- but ultimately somewhat boring -- matters, like security, privacy and freedom are being sacrificed on the altar of convenience

Not on my Christmas list

You'll probably have guessed that a Chromebook is not high on my Amazon wishlist. There are just too many issues that matter to me that remain unresolved or unresolvable given the ChromeOS model. But that's fine as I'm used to not finding myself with similar wishlists to "public opinion". However unlike the iDevices (which I despise for obvious reasons) and tablet-computers which I really can't see a reason for me owning (a sure sign am getting old), in this case I have a sneaky feeling that Chromebooks will not sell that well. For the most part I think that's going to be because the requirement for always being online will be too much for many to put up with. Having a flaky connection for generic web-use is one thing but when you need it to work then you're going to get annoyed real quick. But I think the issues I've raised here won't go away. We in the free software community (another term without real definition) have been aware of the liberty issues with "cloud computing" for some time but having dabbled with it in the mobile market, I fear the greedy proprietary computing firms will want to take control of even more of our lives via things like the Chromebook. Somehow I think they'll "fix" the bandwidth issues before they fix the privacy ones.

Re-visiting the past

When I wrote my previous piece on ChromeOS I made some predictions. As with all predictions some of them were obvious (ChromeOS market place, smaller form factor low-resource netbooks) and some are still in the future (increase in pay-as-you-go software as a service). But one sadly is in danger of being wrong (sort of). If the sort of privacy and freedom issues highlighted in this piece continue then free software will not necessarily disappear but it will drop out of the public sphere of influence and that is a bad thing.

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Biography

Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.