Sunday, March 29, 2015

Attack Of The Clones (Microsoft Takes On Chromebooks)

Tech news and business websites are posting lots of stories these days suggesting that Microsoft is "targeting" Chromebooks with a new line of cheap laptops.  The HP Stream, priced at about $200, was the first major entry in the category, and now we're seeing reports that Microsoft is partnering with hardware vendors to create laptops well below that price.  The term "Chromebook killer" is cropping up all over.  Microsoft seems to be particularly worried about the adoption of Chromebooks in school systems, where the combination of utility and ease of administration makes them an obvious choice.  A new generation of computer users is getting regular exposure to Chromebooks, learning that they are capable devices through daily use, and those young people will grow up to be consumers one day.  It's easy to see why this is a real concern.

Here's why I think it's a losing game for Microsoft:

  1. Chromebooks aren't about "cheap": It's true that many Chromebooks are inexpensive.  But their low price isn't necessarily the primary goal - rather, it's the logical result of the architecture.  The point of a Chromebook is to leverage cloud server-based computing and storage, more or less turning the laptop into a terminal device.  Chromebooks have cheap, low-power processors simply because they can.  And not all Chromebooks are "cheap" - my Toshiba Chromebook 2 with 1080p IPS display costs over $300, due largely to the spectacular display and better-than-average sound hardware.  In building cheap Windows laptops, Microsoft is missing the point - lots, maybe even most of the people buying Chromebooks aren't buying them because they're too poor to afford anything else.  They're buying Chromebooks because they like what they offer.
  2. Chromebook buyers see the lack of Windows as an advantage: Windows is bloated.  It requires a lot of resources to run well.  It's popularity, and aspects of it's design, make it a favorite target for hackers.  It has to be patched constantly, and the patching process is cumbersome and fraught with problems.  It can't be run safely without add-on applications to guard against viruses and other malware.  It gets fouled up with use over time.  And in environments where IT staff have to administer large-scale deployments, it takes a lot of work to manage. Chromebooks aren't like that.  They are relatively stable.  The OS is replaced on a regular basis rather than patched, and the process is very smooth and quick (simply requiring a reboot that takes, on average, about 10 seconds).  Chromebooks are relatively safe from malware, and offer a simple way to remove all customizations and return to factory configurations (called the powerwash).
  3. Windows needs resources: Microsoft likes to point out all the things you can do with Windows, but not with Chromebooks (warning - the link above contains several factual errors).  And it's true - you can't install full versions of Microsoft Office on a Chromebook.  You can't install Photoshop on a Chromebook.  You can't install commercial, power-hungry games on a Chromebook.   What these comparisons fail to point out is that while you can install these things on a cheap, sub-$200 Windows laptop, running them with acceptable performance is another matter entirely.  The last time Microsoft decided to try this, the market was flooded with cheap "netbooks" which many users found frustrating to use.  In some ways, these new, cheap Windows laptops will be even less capable than those netbooks - Microsoft is pushing the use of super-low-power CPUs like the Bay Trail Celerons (which do fine on tablets and Chromebooks, but which are not predicted to run intensive applications like Photoshop all that well).  The new laptops are coming with internal storage reminiscent of a Chromebook - like the 32gig SSDs in the HP Stream - and offering free cloud storage for 1 year, similar to Chromebooks - but that storage is paltry for the installation of applications like Photoshop and Microsoft Office.  They come with 2GB of RAM, barely enough to get Windows up and running, and in no way adequate to run Photoshop or advanced games.  The best way to summarize the problem is that in order to hit the desired price-point, Microsoft has had to lower the hardware resources to such a low level that the Windows experience is likely to be sub-par.  They may garner some sales in the short-term, but people expecting to run Office, Photoshop, or triple-A game titles will be disappointed.  My guess is this will hurt Microsoft in the long run.
It isn't my conclusion that Chromebooks are going to kill off Windows, and few Chromebook users think so.  However I do believe that Chromebooks fill an important niche, and I just don't see any way that Microsoft can play in that space without sacrificing Windows' strengths.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Two Weeks In Belize With Chromebook

Early in March I traveled to Belize to visit my girlfriend and enjoy a break from work.  This was my first opportunity to travel with my Toshiba Chromebook 2, and to rely on it as my primary computing device for an extended period.  I carried the CB2 in my CaseLogic 14-inch Checkpoint-Friendly Laptop Bag. I'd already been using the CB2 and the bag for a while each day going to work, but relying on these things for a couple of weeks away from home would be interesting.

I'll address the performance of the bag first - simply put, it was perfect.  Although the bag - designed for a 14-inch laptop - was a lot smaller than the huge laptop backpack I used to carry, it was just right for my needs.  In it I had my Chromebook and charger, a mouse, my Kindle (Paperwhite verison 2, I like e-ink e-readers better than tablets for reading), my wallet, passport, and a bunch of little stuff - pens, paper, keys, loose change, etc.  Fully loaded, the bag was still lighter and easier to move around than the old backpack.  Access to my stuff was always super convenient.  The bag easily fits under airline seats.

The main feature of this bag is its "security friendly" design, which means you don't have to take your laptop out of the bag (if you use it correctly).  The laptop fits in a compartment in the rear of the bag all by itself, and when you are putting it through a security scanner, you unzip the bag such that the laptop compartment lies flat to one side by itself.  As long as you have put nothing else in the compartment, the security scanners can "see" the laptop without obstruction.  And when the bag exits the scanner you can grab the shoulder strap, pick it up, and it (more or less) "closes" so you can just walk away.  I went through airport security checkpoints 3 times with this bag and at no time did anyone take issue with it, in America or Belize.

Finishing up with my thoughts on the bag - with the one caveat that this particular bag is designed for a 14-inch laptop and thus is intentionally smaller than other bags - I highly recommend it.

The Chromebook was similarly a joy to use.  I won't go into what Chromebooks are all about here - if you like the idea of a laptop designed around cloud-based services you will understand.  The fun started when I got on the American Airlines flight from Miami to Belize and found that they had GoGo in-flight Internet.  My Chromebook came with 12 free passes for GoGo and so I got to try out the service.  It worked well - and was very weird, sitting there posting to G+, and doing Hangouts chats with friends at 30,000 feet.  Shortly after we cleared Cuba (about an hour into the flight) the service dropped out - the GoGo page seemed to indicate that they don't have rights to offer the service everywhere.  Those free passes are only good for one year from the purchase of the Chromebook so I don't know if I'll get another chance to use them, but it was really neat.  

Since the Chromebook is mainly for use online, Internet availability obviously is a concern - "offline" apps notwithstanding, nearly everything you would want to do with a Chromebook really does require an Internet connection.  My girlfriend has DSL and a wireless router at her home on Ambergris Caye, so most of the time connectivity was not an issue - we did spend some time getting the phone company to work on her connection as she was getting only getting about 1mbps despite being signed up for 2mbps service.  

Pretty much every morning, I would grab my coffee and head out to the porch to enjoy the beautiful weather, listen to the birds singing, and catch up with the world.  I would check my email (with Google Inbox), read the news on CNN, catch up with friends and family on Facebook, follow my Google+ groups, the usual stuff.  All of this is very normal, mundane activity - and it may be accurately pointed out that it could all be done on a smartphone or tablet - but the experience on all of these is better with a full-fledged browser like Chrome.  Having a "real" keyboard is a major plus, especially when posting.  And although I've never really liked trackpads, I got so comfortable using the Toshiba CB2 trackpad that I never bothered hooking up my mouse.

During the visit I tried streaming from Hulu and Netflix.  Hulu's geographic restrictions prevented me from using my account - I have yet to sign up for a good VPN service - but Netflix worked fine even with the 2mbps DSL connection.  I also had a number of movies stored on my SD card and the Chromebook playback was great - this model has a 1080p IPS screen and everything looked wonderful.

In short, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 performed perfectly as a portable computing platform.  For me the Chromebook has always been about having a useful secondary device, never meant to replace my desktop.  I have it on my desk at work every day, and occasionally use it in the living room at home.  However, for the two weeks I was in Belize, I found it to be great for everyday use and never once found myself wishing for anything more.