Along with those hyperannoying Target ads, holiday weekend viewers got a flashy, almost Apple-esque spot touting Google's new Chromebook, a portable device starting at $199 that is neither a PC nor a tablet, certainly not in the traditional sense.
Getting my hands on one has proved difficult; Amazon.com and other online sellers are out of stock. But from what I've seen and experienced, at least via the firm's Chrome Web browser, I'll confess the Chromebook is mighty tempting and might well disrupt a good chunk of the computer industry. My apologies to Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman if that news disturbs her sleep patterns.
The basic idea behind the Chromebook is that it would function largely while connected to the Internet. Data are stored on Google's servers, presumably securely, and applications, such as they are, also are in the "cloud." That means the Chromebook doesn't need much in the way of onboard storage, and its manufacturers (mainly Samsung) can use reasonably priced microprocessors and "splurge" on better displays and smaller form factors.
In plain English, if you can get something that does a lot of what Apple's MacBook Air does at one-quarter of the price, or less, would you do it?
No, the Chromebook does not give you access to Apple's vast array of programs, and for multimedia creation and editing, the Mac platform wins hands down. For now, that is.
But as more programs become available for Chrome, the eponymous operating system of the Chromebook, that equation might change. To the Chrome OS (and to the Mac version of the Google Chrome Web browser, which I use constantly) one can add all sorts of programs, from the productivity app Zoho Office to the Bible study app Biblia, and while I've added several programs, I haven't paid a cent yet.
How Google and its partners will monetize this is unclear, but for now, I'm a happy camper.
Using the Google Chrome apps hasn't presented too many challenges. Zoho Office is fine and certainly is good enough for most productivity needs. The Biblia app comes from the people behind Logos Bible Software and is also quite nice.
But my computers have all sorts of ways of connecting to the Internet, including a hard-wired Ethernet connection to a local-area network. The $249 Samsung Chromebook, unless you buy a model with a wireless data radio for $80 more (and an optional data plan), is largely limited to Wi-Fi connections.
Not all of those are free (although buyers get a nice amount of credit with Gogo Wireless for its airplane-based Wi-Fi) but there are enough free Internet outlets around, including the McDonald's near my house, that one could go out and about without too much computing loss.
Still, are you willing to sacrifice those elements to which users have become so attached? The Chromebook people say you can do work offline, but how much work and how much storage are the key questions. That $249 model has 16 gigabytes of storage, which is a fair amount, but it could be more.
The answer well could come as our computing future evolves. Many of us already have moved from using programs on our computers to smaller applications on our tablets and smartphones. Mint.com has replaced Quicken as the go-to personal-finance tracking method for millions, and the shift is why Intuit, Quicken's publisher, bought Mint.com awhile back.
On Nov. 25, the Pew Research Center reported that "fully 85 percent of American adults own a cell phone and now use the devices to do much more than make phone calls." The group said 82 percent of cellphone users take pictures with their devices, 56 percent access the Internet on them, and 43 percent download apps to use.
When you look at those numbers, the idea of a Chromebook with cloud-based apps isn't that far-fetched after all. Meg Whitman might not be the only person in the industry losing some shut-eye in the months ahead.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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