Shiny Object Syndrome

ChromebooksFor a while now I’ve been really keen to get my hands on one of the new Chromebooks but they have been as scarce as the proverbial rocking horse poop. I played with the original CR-48 units at the 2011 Sydney Google Teacher Academy, and although I thought they were a brilliant concept, troubles with the wifi at the time (at Google HQ of all places!) had me going back to my MacBook Pro sooner than I planned. The basic concept of a Chromebook is a computer where the operating system is basically just a browser (although I don’t think it’s really fair to refer to Chrome as “just a browser”.)

Still, by minimising the operating system to little more than a support system for the web browser, it really enables the web to emerge as the platform. With most of the data stored away from the machine – in the cloud – it means that users don’t have to worry about locally stored data. With the “software” on the machine really just being web services on cloud-based servers accessed via the browser, it means that your “software” is always up to date and always the latest version. If you lose the Chromebook or it gets damaged, you lose no data, since there was no data on it to begin with. Just grab another Chromebook, log in with the same Google account and you’re back to exactly where you were.

For schools in particular, it’s a brilliant concept. No software to install and maintain, no user data to store locally, nothing to back up, light and portable, easy to share… just log in and use it.

So for all of these reasons and others (Hey, I just like gadgets!) I was really keen to get my hands on one of the recently released Samsung units. The reviews have been very positive, although dealing with the lack of supply has been pretty frustrating. Lots of people want to buy them, but they have been really hard to get in the US and near impossible everywhere else.

In the leadup to the Sydney Google Summit I was hoping to get hold of one but it didn’t happen. I tried to buy one on Amazon but they refused to ship to Australia. I probably could have bought one on ebay, but for an arm and a leg. Fortunately, while at the Summit I had a chat with Suan Yeo, the head of education for Google in Asia Pacific and he mentioned that he might be able to organise me a loaner.

Well, long story short, I got an email yesterday letting me know that if I wanted to swing by the Sydney Google offices there was a shiny toy made of Chrome for me to play with for a month. Woohoo!  I dropped by after work and picked it up, and I’m now writing this blogpost on it.

Here’s my plan. For the next 30 days I plan to use ONLY the Chromebook for my own personal computing use, just to see how feasible it really is to live entirely in the cloud.  Of course, there are still things I need to do for my job at school that will require access to network drives and printers and so on, so I will have to keep using my Windows machine there. But I will have the Chromebook on my desk during the day and I intend to use it exclusively as my personal machine for the next month. I’ll blog about it here and let you know how it goes, what works for me, what doesn’t and try to give you an insight into what it’s like to live exclusively in nothing but a browser.

First impressions…

I really like it.  I love the size and weight for portability, although the smaller screen size is certainly making my eyes work harder than the larger 15 inch screen on my MacBook Pro or my iMac. But it’s certainly no worse than the 11 inch MacBook Air I have been using as my portable machine. The general build quality feels quite adequate… a little plasticky compared to an aluminium bodied Macbook, but then, so do most other computers. It’s certainly comparable to similar machines, and amazing when you consider it sells for about $250.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the additional functionality that I didn’t expect. Despite not having a “file system” as such, it does have a desktop, a downloads folder, and it can read and write USB and SD card drives. The access to Google Drive is pretty seamless, as you’d expect.  I don’t recall what the earlier Chromebooks did for storage prior to Drive, but having Drive certainly makes them quite usable. The keyboard is full size but has extra buttons that are specific to the Chromebook (and the keys are in lower case, which looks really odd at first.) There are lots of keyboard shortcuts that I want to learn to make it even more functional to use, and they can be accessed by pressing ctrl-alt-?.

Signing into the machine with my Google account immediately brought all my apps, themes and extensions across from my other machine, so within minutes I was working away as though I’d owned the machine forever. Very cool.

Battery life has been amazing. I took it off charge this morning, used it at work all morning, took notes in a meeting, showed it to quite a few people, spent a couple of hours browsing the web, have just been writing this post and it’s now nearly 4pm and it’s still going strong.  Even with the screen brightness turned way up, which is the way I like it, I think I would easily get a full days use from it.

The trackpad is quite good, and it has the same two-finger scroll and two-finger secondary click that I’m used to from the MacBook. I don’t much like trackpads at the best of times, and would always prefer to plug in a mouse (which I haven’t done yet) but the trackpad is about as good as it should be.

So, it’s looking good so far. If you’re interested in following my month with a Chromebook check back here again over the next few weeks and I’ll let you know how it’s going.

You’ve come a long way!

I remember back in the mid 90s I started to hear more and more about this upstart operating system for computers called Linux. It was an alternative to Windows and Mac, and was based on an open source project started in 1991 by a student in Helsinki named Linus Torvalds.  I thought it sounded like a fascinating project and I liked the sound of it, since any alternative to Windows had to be a good thing.  In about 1997 there was lots of talk about this new OS and its potential so I wanted to give it a shot. I originally tried to install it on my trusty old Thinkpad using a copy of Redhat Linux that came free on the cover of a computer magazine, but I didn’t have much luck so abandoned it at the time.

Not long after that I heard the infamous John “Mad dog” Hall speak at a computer show in Sydney, where he passionately and logically espoused the virtues of open source software as a legitimate alternative to commercial software such as Windows and Office.  I recall he made some really compelling arguments because I came away from that talk determined to get this Linux thing working so I could try it. I stumbled across a set of SuSE Linux CDs and tried again to install it, but again without success. At about that time, one of my Year 10 students mentioned that his dad worked with Unix and so volunteered his dad to come give me a hand.  Despite the fact that this guy knew Unix (and by extension, knew a lot about Linux, since that’s where Linux evolved from) we still could not get it working.  We kinda, sorta got it working, but the screen was all weird and there was no sound and definitely no networking. There were all sorts of driver issues, and since I was a relative n00b at using the Linux command line, I really didn’t get very far with it.  However, I did at least try to learn some Linux commands which, although I’m hardly an expert, have come in very handy at various times in my career working with computers and networks.

I really wanted to like Linux. I principle, I really like the concept of an open source operating system, built by a community of users and freely released to the world.  I like the ideology behind Linux, for much the same reason that I like the ideology behind Wikipedia. The world is a better place when we openly share with each other and together we are better than any single one of us.  But no matter how much I wanted to like Linux, the fact remained that I just simply could not get it working with any degree of satisfaction on any hardware I owned. Either the network wouldn’t work, or the sound wouldn’t work, or the screen would only show at 640×480… but I never seemed to be able to get a fully functional system that presented a credible threat to the commercial OSes.

Gradually though, things began to change, and I watched Linux take a big hold in the server space. I ran a school network for a few years and we had a number of Linux servers running various parts of the network. These servers were doing backend webserver work and ran without the need for a GUI… they were ridiculously hard for me to work with (I guess I’m just not that geeky!) but they were totally bulletproof as servers. They often ran for months without any issues and really showed me that Linux was a powerful, stable OS, even if I did find it quite unfriendly to work with.  I just found that terminal a little too intimidating and hard to use, and although I could work out the commands to type in when I needed to, it was clear that I was just not ready for Linux in my day to day desktop existence.

Things really started to change when I saw Ubuntu.  The wonderful Pia Waugh showed me Ubuntu in a workshop and it was a massive improvement over any previous Linux distribution I’d seen. It had a drop-dead simple installation process, lots of apps included and had a GUI that was quite intuitive to use. I installed it on a few machines and it was almost, nearly, but not quite there. I still had minor issues with getting wireless to work, and a few other little things, but mostly it was clear that it was a massive step forward in ease of use.  By this stage, I’d dumped Windows from my day to day computing existence and had moved back to a Mac. The Mac’s ease of use, reliability, speed and performance was like a breath of fresh air… everything, as the ads say, just worked.

I still love my Macs, and along with the iPhone and iPad, Apple are obviously producing some very impressive, game changing technologies these days. But the more I hear and see about the closed world that Apple operates in, the more I’m feeling troubled. I get it, I understand what Uncle Steve is trying to do, and really I don’t think there is any intention to be evil about it. I realise that Apple’s thinking is to produce a platform that just works and is as reliable, stable and functional as possible, and I get that the only way they can truly do that is to control the experience from end to end. When you make the hardware, and the software, and the services and the content… well you get total control over the user experience.  That’s the genius of Apple’s approach. They can give you an elegant, robust, delightful usability experience because every piece is designed to work with every other piece.  It is the reason why I found Linux so damn difficult to use back in the early days, because the environment of Linux was a complete free-for-all, and there was never any guarantee that any hardware or software would play nicely together. It explains why all that early Linux experience was just a painful series of missing drivers, incompatible hardware, a confusing array of software choices, and lots and lots of of frustration.

Having said that, Apple’s approach does bother me a little because it conflicts with my core philosophy of openness and my belief that there should be certain freedoms in what I use and how I work.  Despite the incredibly good user experience that OSX provides, I do sometimes feel the frustration of working within the limitations (or is that the safety?) of the Apple cocoon.  The world grew very sick of Microsoft when it tried to own the entire game. Apple may be working on a much smaller scale than Microsoft was, but it is more aggressive at the same tactic.  Unless they soften their approach a little I’m concerned that here could be a real backlash against Apple as their market share grows.

Overall, I’ll probably stay with my beloved Macs for a while yet since they I still think they are the best overall choice of computing platform.

But back to Linux for a moment. Maybe it’s old news to some people, but I’ve just lately discovered and have become quite impressed with a Linux distribution called Jolicloud.  Jolicloud is a project started by Tariq Krim, the original founder of Netvibes, and is a Ubuntu Linux-based OS made especially for netbook computers.  Jolicloud is completely optimised for netwooks and just goes to show that those underpowered little laptops can actually be useful little computers when they have the right operating system software on them.  I’m running it at the moment on my Lenovo S10 netbook, which until recently was running Windows 7. Jolicloud seems much better suited to the purpose, and runs faster and snappier than 7 did.  The user interface is based on the Netbook Remix Project, but is tweaked in all sorts of added ways for better performance.  I particularly like the “cloud” concept behind it, with the Jolicloud App Directory playing a key role in the overall ease of use. You can browse the App Directory for extra  software (there are hundreds to choose from!) and with a single click they are added to your computer.  All the updates are automatically taken care of through the cloud service too.

The installation was super easy, just download the Jolicloud ISO file, along with a small USB key creator file. Although the ISO took a while to download (it’s about 690MB), once you’ve got it the bootable USB key is made within minutes. Insert it into the netbook, restart and boot from the USB key and the system is installed in less than 15 minutes.  Best of all, every device on the computer works like a charm… sound, screen, network, webcam… everything just worked right out of the box.  I added a few apps (well, ok, over a hundred so far) and it’s turned my netbook from being a device that was easy to carry but painful to use, into a computer that could competently become my regular travel buddy.  There are even two different modes, a Netbook Remix interface, along with a more traditional desktop menu interface.  I think it has great potential. And of course, it’s 100% free.  Free as in beer AND free as in speech.

It’s really shown me just how far Linux has come as a computer for the average person. My mum doesn’t know much about how to use a computer, but I think if she was interested in having one, I would probably give her a Linux based Jolicloud computer in preference to a Windows machine.  She’s probably find it more intuitive, more stable, and overall much easier to use than Windows. And that is a claim that I don’t think I could have made 10, or even 5, years ago.

Linux, you’ve come a long way baby!