I’ve just been watching a discussion on the Google Chromebook on BBC Breakfast. Surprisingly the presenters had some half decent questions to ask Rory Cellan-Jones as he showed them the latest attempt by Google to grab a further hold on the IT market. But what makes Google think this device is in any way a practical replacement for a laptop or tablet?
The Chromebook itself is essentially an underpowered laptop – you could also think of it as an oversized notebook computer. Underpowered doesn’t necessarily mean competitively priced as the device will cost around £400 in the UK, putting it on a par with a reasonably well specified laptop or tablet. Of course to do anything you need a network connection of some sort – Wifi or 3G. This is stumbling block number 1.
All applications are accessed online, which means if you have no network connection, you have no usable device. Google (via AT&T in the US) are offering plans that start at 100MB per month for mobile data. This is a tiny figure based on the fact that all your email, photos, documents and anything else you have would need to be both uploaded and downloaded through a wireless connection. Google must be hoping that wireless connectivity becomes ubiquitous. I can’t see how this is at all likely within the next 20 years. Firstly today’s 3G technology isn’t capable of delivering a constant reliable connection. Buildings mask or break the signal and base stations can’t cope with large numbers of users; most countries still don’t offer Wifi on aeroplanes. Second, economically there’s no business case for rolling out 4G networks to every single pocket of the world. Look at any map of 3G coverage today and it’s concentrated around population areas and sometimes major transport links. Go “off piste” and you have no signal. This was done for a reason. Base stations cost money to deploy and there’s an economic cost/benefit model against deploying them in low population areas.
The next major issue is control. All applications have to be accessed via Google; the first requirement of using the Chromebook is to log into your Google account. All applications are then delivered via Google’s App Store. Many people will say this is no different to the way Apple control the iPhone, iPad and iPod devices. That is true but there are other devices coming to market that challenge this approach. The control issue is much wider than simply the management of an App store. Google store your data on their platform and like all vendors, don’t make things easy when you want to move your data elsewhere. This is a major issue with the way cloud services are offered today – data inertia. We have had the issue in Enterprise computing for many years; proprietary database formats, storage arrays that don’t replicate to the competitors products. In fact the situation is getting worse, as vendors are starting to bring out converged infrastructure that retains the grip over customer data. Having a laptop that offers local data is still a necessary security blanket.
Then there are the alternatives. Google are pitching the Chromebook at schools and businesses, making a virtue of the ability to log into any device to access data. Well we can do that already with Virtual Desktop implementations. Thin clients are much cheaper than the Chromebook in terms of pure hardware cost. They also have the same flexible benefit of not storing user data. The tipping point comes in determining the cost of deploying and managing VDI infrastructure versus using a solution such as Google’s. As networks get faster and more reliable, why not just use a hosted VDI solution?
The Architect Angle
Google have to do something to meet the challenge from Apple, Amazon (and to a certain extent Microsoft) and others in their core business – delivering data and applications via the web. I think the “always on” assumption is at this stage flawed and there are plenty of other better solutions already available out there. Consumers will balk at paying £400 for a device which has no other purpose than to connect to Google. At that price it is better to purchase a TouchPad or iPad and have access to multiple server providers. Google have a long uphill struggle ahead of them to get Chromebook into the dominant position Apple enjoy today.