How I Learned to Love the Chromebook

Photo by me.

I’ve been singing the praises of Chromebooks for some time, but none of that praise has come from direct experience. The utility and potential of these devices have been starkly obvious to me, though I’d never had occasion to test them on myself. I’ve always had a perfectly good laptop, a phone, and sometimes even a tablet (I don’t have one of those right now, and I kind of miss it), so having yet another device was not something I could justify. Financially. To my wife, mostly.

Then, like a superhero bursting through the clouds to come to my rescue, my former theatre colleague Tom Loughlin suggested I borrow his old Dell Chromebook 11 and try it out. He knows I’ve been bullish on them, and he wanted me to do some writing about what it was like to actually use one, and I was all what? and he was all yeah! and he shipped it to me.

But this was weeks and weeks ago, and other than start the thing up, I did essentially nothing with it.

Because what was I going to do with it? Like I said, I’m already fully decked-out tech-wise. There never emerged an impetus to bust it out, no need arose. So it sat in the box Tom had shipped it in, and I felt guilty.

And then in one day it dawned on me, weirdly, twice.

I work from home, and my office is upstairs in a big walk-in closet in the back of our bedroom. When my MacBook Pro is in full “work mode,” it’s on my desk, hooked up to power, hardwired to the Internet, and connected to my backup external hard drive. Sometimes it’s also got a microphone hooked up (for the podcast usually), and has at times also had a monitor, mouse, or what have you. And this is how it was a few days ago.

And I wanted to make my lunch. Downstairs.

But still be able to work. Because I’m just like that.

As you can imagine, I didn’t want to unhook everything (and of course “safely eject” the hard drive) and bring my MacBook downstairs, only to run it back upstairs and hook it all up again.

That’s when I remembered the Chromebook.

And here’s the amazing part. I had the idea to use it, I opened it up, logged in with my Google Apps credentials, and that was it. Everything was there, and I could just work. I could do everything that I would normally do for work, too. It was almost entirely frictionless.

But of course I didn’t only want my work account set up! I wanted my personal Google account up and running, too. And it took me literally a couple of minutes to figure out how to have two “instances” of Google accounts running on the device at the same time. So now I could work in one account, click an icon at the bottom of the screen and instantly switch right over to the other account. Again, almost entirely frictionless.

That’s how I worked for a little while. And when I was ready, I closed it, and went back to my office.

That was one. The other happened later that evening. We don’t do cable at our house, so we had to get CNN’s live stream of the Democratic debate, and watch it on our living room TV. CNN wouldn’t allow the video to be cast over to our TV, so to do this I had to connect my MacBook via HDMI, which also meant that my computer would be physically tethered to our TV, which meant that I couldn’t use it do the one thing I love more than watching presidential debates: tweeting presidential debates.

And then I remembered: the Chromebook.

Usually, in this situation, I’m stuck tweeting on my phone, which isn’t nearly as easy when you’re doing so in a rapid-fire manner as I do during events like this. But this time, all I had to do was open up the Chromebook, sit back, and knock out my HILARIOUS tweets in a full-function instance of Tweetdeck, just like I would have done on my Mac. No beats skipped. (I also wrote and published this post using only the Chromebook.)

So this is what the Chromebook is to me, right now: a lightweight extra computer. In many ways, it’s what I’d always wanted out of an iPad; a casual computing device that asked very little of me, was smartly limited in its functionality, but could still do the basics without any friction. The iPad was great for, say, reading and browsing, but not for working. The Chromebook is not my reading device of choice by any stretch of the imagination (my phone is now), but for simply getting shit done without being laden with all the computer cruft, it’s great.

That doesn’t mean I can now justify getting one. I still don’t need it, the same way I don’t need a tablet, and yet would still like to have one. But now its utility for someone like me is much clearer. Simply put, it’d be a great second, kicking-around computer.

And truly, if I didn’t have some particular media-creation needs, a Chromebook would serve as my main computer without a problem.

So right now I’m in a mode of “it’d be nice to have one” for Chromebooks, but there’s still some evolution that needs to happen before it crosses into “oh man I really need to sell off some of my valuables to get one.” I think what I’d really like is for the Chromebook to get closer to absorbing more tablet use-cases, where the keyboard goes away (either by detaching or flipping around or whatever) and the laptop becomes a single slate that can be used as more of a casual reading and browsing device; lean-back instead of lean-forward.

Asus’s Chromebook Flip is the right idea, actually, but there’s one problem I have with it: the screen resolution. I’m spoiled by, and now married to, Retina-level resolutions, and especially if I’m going to use something to read off of, it’s got to be crispy. If Asus were to put one of these out with over 300ppi, I’d be all in.

This, really, was my only real problem with the 2013 Dell Chromebook 11: the display is garbage. Utter shit. Not only is it low-resolution, but it’s washed out, with colors rendered, well, vaguely. The rest of the laptop’s hardware was fine. It’s plenty zippy, the trackpad was acceptable, and the keyboard was fine. But that screen, blech.

The point is, however, that even though I was already a Chromebook booster, I’m now a fan. This is a great category of device, and I can’t wait to see it get better, and then to get my own.

(And sincerely, thank you, Tom!)

Magical Thinking Won’t Make the iPad Rise Again

Photo credit: plynoi / Foter / CC BY-NC
A few months ago I made the case that iPads and tablets generally were a product category in crisis. Ever-larger and more powerful phones with ever-slimmer, lighter, and simply more pleasant laptops means that the use-case for tablets severely dwindles. And I say this as a genuine fan of tablets, but also as someone who no longer owns one because of their functional redundancy.

A few days ago, Neil Cybart at Above Avalon, an Apple analysis site, made more or less the same case, but focused as much on sales numbers as on use-cases. (I’m maybe a little peeved that my post was ignored and this one is getting serious attention from the tech punditocracy, but I’m nobody, so whatever.) Cybart emphasizes how tablets are primarily used for watching video, and therefore don’t require frequent upgrades or high-end hardware.

He’s right. They are mostly passive devices, thin little TVs. They are largely not being used for high-end productivity or for the advancement of the humanities. Of course there are exceptions, as power users can certainly make incredible use of tablets, but the mass market is buying them to watch Netflix, check Facebook, and look at the email they don’t want to respond to.

Where I differ from Cybart is in his vision for iPad success and growth:

By selling a device that is truly designed from the ground-up with content creation in mind, the iPad line can regain a level of relevancy that it has lost over the past few years. In every instance where the iPad is languishing in education and enterprise, a larger iPad with a 12.9-inch, Force Touch-enabled screen would carry more potential.

He goes on to lay out potential use-cases in education, enterprise, and general consumer computing, all of which hinge on Apple heavily focusing on making it easier to manage and juggle multiple applications and windows, and more pleasant and ergonomic to type.

I think he’s wrong. I think this particular vision is an example of a kind of Apple-is-magic thinking in which Apple grudgingly stuffs complex functionality into the constricting parameters of its platonic ideal of a “simple” computing device. Geeks like me cheered when Apple added things like third-party keyboards and improved sharing capabilities to iOS, but many (including me) quickly grew frustrated as it became clear that Apple’s efforts were kludgy, a series of half-realized solutions that prioritized Apple’s sense of preciousness over consistent usability.

I feel like this is what Cybart is asking for when he prescribes these more powerful capabilities for a hypothetical iPad Plus or iPad Pro. Barring unforeseeable and massive leaps in input and UI technology, even a big, powerful iPad will remain a rectangle displaying pixels, used by two-handed primates with 10 digits. There’s only so much complexity, and so much productivity, such a thing could ever realize. We’ve almost certainly not seen tablets hit a ceiling in terms of what degree of productivity they can eke out, but I bet we’re damned close.

(And for that matter, why is it so important to envision scenarios of revived success for iPads at all? Why be invested in this? Could it be because some of us are more concerned with identities as Apple aficionados than we are with actually having the best devices for a given need?)

Meanwhile, high-end, slim laptops get lighter and nicer to use, and still maintain all the functionality we’ve been conditioned to expect from PCs. You don’t have to connect a Bluetooth keyboard, you don’t have to buy a stand or a special case to do any of it. You just open your laptop, and there’s your screen, keyboard, and trackpad. And lots of laptops also allow for touch input, in case you really want that too. Even though it’s a more or less “old” idea by technology standards, it’s damned convenient when you think about it.

Phones are getting bigger, with higher-resolution displays, and as I just noted, more and more they’re even being used to read books. They’re great for video watching (as are laptops), for games, for checking Facebook, and for ignoring emails (as are laptops). Oh, and it’s already in your pocket or bag, and goes everywhere with you. No tablet needed. When people derided the first iPad as “a big iPhone,” it turns out that’s really what people wanted, not a replacement for their PC, but a bigger phone.

But even if we assume that iPads will reach the kind of functional threshold that Cybart predicts, they’d still have to be better suited for productivity than laptops, which they can’t be, and perhaps more importantly, be demonstrably better than things like high-quality Chromebooks and Chromebases that can deliver most or all of the features and conveniences of laptops and tablets, including touchscreens.

Chrome-based devices, I think, are the products that are truly on the verge of breaking through to mass adoption in the very areas Cybart sees as fruitful for the iPad. Cheap Chromebooks are already growing in education, and as they become more obviously of a higher quality, there’s no reason to think they won’t make inroads into the consumer and enterprise spaces. And perhaps the biggest irony there, with Chrome more or less being a browser, is that they’ll be simpler to implement and use than an iPad. That’s not the Apple narrative, Apple is always supposed to be simpler and more intuitive, but I think it’s easy to see that their devotion to simple-as-defined-by-us has largely just made things clunkier for their products.

I should note that I really do love iPads and tablets. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down. They’re often pleasant to use, beautifully made, and convenient.

Just not enough to keep dropping over $500 on them. Maybe once, and then not again for a long, long time. (I got my wife an iPad Air for Christmas, and she was happy but a little confused because her old iPad 3 was more than fine for her.) I don’t think Apple finding a way to snap two apps’ windows together on the screen, or vibrating under your fingers, is going to change any of that.

Chromebook Caveats and Dealbreakers

J.R. Raphael at Computerworld has a great, straightforward set of questions for anyone who isn’t sure if a Chromebook would be a good idea for them. (It will also give you a good idea of what a Chromebook is if you don’t know already.) It actually helped me clear up some things in my own mind about how useful or feasible such a thing might be for someone like me, who’s been devoted to Macs for more than 10 years. Yes, I could certainly see myself doing most of what I generally do on my computer from a browser interface, with only a couple of caveats, one of them being huge.
The smaller (but deal-breaking) caveat is audio production and video editing. If I had no interest in recording my own music or podcasts (oops), and if I never had a need to edit video (which is rare but crucial), that’d be no problem. Certainly, things like podcasts and very light video editing can be done from the web, but you’d never choose this over a dedicated app on a powerful machine. Not now, anyway. So for me, that outright rules out a Chromebook, but on a functional level, not a philosophical level.

The larger philosophical issue I have is one that perhaps is a relic of “old school” computing, and maybe I just need to let it go: Local storage for my digital media. My photos of my family and whatnot are precious and plentiful, and I don’t subscribe to any music streaming services, so my large music library is whatever I have on my local drive. (Don’t worry, I have on-site and cloud backups of everything, severally.)

I can’t abide the idea of trusting all of it to anyone’s cloud service. Nor do I like the idea of putting everything into a digital dusty attic, some external hard drive that sits somewhere in the house and rots, or fiddling with SD cards and USB drives.

Bringing up this concern on a Google+ thread for Raphael’s article, folks pointed me to ways you could manually upgrade a certain model of Chromebook from a 16GB to a 128GB SSD. And that’s all fine, but it’s so fiddly and hacky. The whole point of a Chromebook is supposed to be the way it does away with the baggage of Olden-Times computing: open it up, turn it on, log in, and all your stuff is there in seconds. No worrying about upgrading the OS or individual apps, no fussing with configurations, no managing storage, etc. The last thing you’d want is to then have to open the damn thing up and carefully attach some piece of internal hardware that costs almost as much as the computer itself did. That’s fine for geeks, and even fine for me if I had to do it, but it’s just too much for what the Chromebook is intended for.

So, in short, Chromebooks would need to be able to handle at least minimal media production as well as have far more internal storage for media files. Then we can start to talk.

If Apple’s Stuff Doesn’t “Just Work,” What Does?

L6lJgThe tech punditocracy is abuzz, talking about this post by Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, The Magazine, and Overcast, co-host of Accidental Tech Podcast, and who’s probably as famous as an iOS developer can be. It’s a kind of catharsis post, a kind of throwing up of the hands at the myriad problems and unkept promises plaguing the Apple ecosystem.
“The problem seems to be quite simple,” he writes. “They’re doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines.” And the result is a significant decline in the utility of their software and services, and a big increase in frustration. (The hardware, he writes, remains “amazing,” which I largely agree with.) OS X, he says, is “riddled with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions.”*

But I want to focus on one part of Arment’s post, which to me was the most damning of Apple.

Apple has completely lost the functional high ground. “It just works” was never completely true, but I don’t think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer. We now need to treat Apple’s OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ.


This has been my experience as well, which is particularly stark given my past as an Apple Store drone and reputation as an Apple evangelist (a well-earned one). But I can’t say with a straight face anymore that Apple’s software is “more intuitive” or that things work “almost seamlessly,” which I used to feel wholeheartedly. I still think that, generally, an iPhone is a better purchase for normals than an Android phone, but I no longer feel confident that the ease of use of Apple’s software and services is a selling point.

But Arment’s assertion begs a question asked by John Gruber, who also has an answer:

If they’ve “lost the functional high ground”, who did they lose it to? I say no one.

And I have a different possible answer: Google. And I’m not talking about Android.

What is more intuitive, more familiar, to the general user than a web browser? The basic tenets of how a web browser works haven’t changed in 20 years. People know how to get their email, browse and share photos, and even do their office work in a web browser. And as time passes, more and more big processes and services are moving from standalone apps to the web. Major apps like Office and Photoshop now have near-fully-fuctioning web versions (while Apple’s web versions of its apps are stunted).

So if a consumer is looking for a hardware/software/service ecosystem that “just works,” the answer might be (and if not today, probably very soon) Chromebooks. I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience using one, but Chrome OS is more or less a web-browser-as-operating-system, where Google and other companies’ cloud services take care of all the storage and synchronization tasks, with little to no effort on the part of the user. Google’s services certainly aren’t foolproof or immune from failure, but they’re reliable enough that one never presumes there will be a problem. With Apple stuff of late, one goes in slightly flinching over what might not work.

And while I don’t include Android here, it can’t be denied that Android’s interconnectedness with Chrome OS gives Android a huge “it just works” leg up on iOS/OS X. Android’s problem is that it’s still too fiddly; too much customization is demanded from a general user. But that’s improving all the time. The back end synchronization is, in my experience, flawless.

In a recent piece at The Next Web, Wojtek Borowicz writes about the future of interfaces for our digital lives, beyond point-and-click and tap-and-swipe, and beyond icons and folders. He prophesies, “The interface of tomorrow will be dominated by cards, notifications and natural language communication.”

He elaborates:

To execute this vision, apps and platforms need to leverage intelligence and understand context of the user. The easy part is harvesting all kinds of data we’re providing computer systems with. The hard thing? Structuring this data, making sense of it, and turning it into features that go beyond pushing actionable notifications to the lock screen. The key is tailoring the experience for needs of the particular user. It requires knowledge about users almost on the level of intimacy.

No one is better positioned to do that than Google, whose Google Now and general context awareness is infused into every aspect of its services, while Siri lags behind as a useful but frustratingly limited bonus to owning an iOS device. Whatever happens after the web browser (the current and immediate-future “it just works”), Google alone has the underlying foundation of data and infrastructure to make real the next paradigm. That doesn’t mean they will, but they probably can. Apple could, but it would need to change some core aspects of its philosophy on matters such as privacy, openness to third parties, and perhaps complexity, at least in the short term.

And right now, they don’t seem to have the wherewithal to execute on the current paradigm, so a sea change is quite a ways off.



* For my part, it’s less about the problems with OS X, and more with the marquee Apple apps that run on it. Garageband, iMovie, iPhoto, and the iWork suite have all gotten worse, probably starting their decline around 2008. Just this week on the podcast The Rebound, the fellows get themselves on a track of fondly remembering the way iMovie ’06 worked (and I agree, it was excellent), and how the thinking behind the current generation of apps is mostly incomprehensible.