Monday, November 4, 2013

I finally understand the why of ChromeOS

When I attended Google I/O in May 2013 I had no expectation that I'd be receiving a Chromebook Pixel. I had thoughts (hopes) that they'd announce Android Key-lime Pie (now known to be called Kit-Kat) with a new tablet.  My original Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 had been trucking along well since July of 2011 with heavy use. I commute 1 - 1.5 hours each way on the bus to work and I use that time to mostly read Kindle books but also to catch up on blogs, email, and the internet as a whole. It's pretty safe to say that I used my Galaxy Tab 10.1 3 - 5 hours a day every day.

I feel a little privileged saying I expected Google to give away free tablets, and I probably was being a little privileged. But their history had been to give away free phones/tablets at their events (especially Google I/O). Much to my disappointment Google didn't announce Android Kit-Kat and didn't announce a new tablet.  But much to my surprise they did announce that they were giving away Chromebook Pixel's to everyone in attendance.

I was super curious about this because, frankly, I've been really skeptical of Chrome OS since it was first announced. I just couldn't image a world in which Chrome OS and Android could live in the same ecosystem.  At the time I couldn't understand why Google wasn't putting more of an effort into bringing Android to more traditional devices instead of creating a completely new operation system.

Android vs. Chrome OS

After having my Pixel for 6 months I believe I finally understand why Google created Chrome OS as opposed to trying to bring Android to more traditional devices. This realization only came after using my Pixel as my everyday (home) laptop for the last 6 months. The problems that Android is trying to solve are very different from the problems that need to be solved on more traditional, less transient devices.

In my opinion, mobile devices are trying to (primarily) solve these problems:
  • Hard-line to the rest of the world (phone, email, text)
  • Critical content at a glance (calendar, contacts, events, places, transportation, activities).
  • Activity based content with a focus on location and movement (maps, running/biking/etc)
  • Bite-sized consumable content (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc)
  • Content consumable in the in-between time (games, apps, news, weather, etc). 
  • Media consumption (music, movies, books, etc) typically in a short form. 

In my opinion, traditional devices are trying to (primarily) solve these problems:
  • Communication (email, instant message)
  • Research and Planning
  • Work (documents, spreadsheets, presentations, blogging/writing, development, shared content access, etc)
  • Media consumption (music, movies, books, etc) typically in long form.
There are overlaps between the two but for the most part traditional devices tend to be the canonical source of your data whereas mobile devices tend to be a transient source of your data.  For instance, your traditional device may have all your email on it whereas your mobile device may have only your recent email on it.  Your traditional device may have all your music and movies whereas your mobile device may have a subset of them.

Once I started to look at Chrome OS as a replacement for more traditional devices like desktops/laptops and less of a replacement for your mobile device Chrome OS started to make a lot more sense. Chrome OS actually seems more like Google's attempt to redefine traditional devices. The big change not being in how you use the device but in how the device interacts with your content.

Currently traditional devices are the place where you create, store, and consume your content. Your mobile device tends to be a place where your content is transiently stored, occasionally created, and mostly consumed.  This doesn't lend well to an environment where we're constantly switching between our traditional device and our mobile device. We're being forced to be aware of the context switch and in some cases, take active action before and after the context switch. Currently the hand-off between traditional devices and mobile is clunky and awkward.

Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others have all been making strides to make it easier to store your content outside of your traditional device in The Cloud (I still cringe saying that). But that's only part of the solution. It's a solution that's been grafted into an existing ecosystem that wasn't designed to solve that problem.  So it sticks out and forces you to at least be partially aware of it's existence.  Chrome and Firefox are making good strides to blur the lines with their bookmark and tab syncing across devices but again that's only a partial solution.

The real solution must involve changing the culture around traditional devices. It must involve freeing the user from thoughts or knowledge of where their content is and on what devices that content is available.  And that culture change needs to happen on traditional devices first.

I think that's the why of Chrome OS.

Are they there yet?  I think that depends on who you are. If your the average consumer who blogs, surfs the web, possibly uses Netflix, Rdio, Hulu, Office/Google Docs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and etc then yes, I think you'd be able to replace your traditional device with a Chromebook.

If you're a power user, a developer, or someone that relies on open standards then no Chrome OS won't work out of the box for you.  I store a lot of my files on a shared WebDav drive encrypted using open-ssl. I use KeePass to store my important account info. There's no elegant solution to getting those three things working out of the box on Chrome OS.  Thankfully David Schneider created crouton which is a Chromium centered set of scripts which allow you to create chroots. With crouton I can get a full Ubuntu Linux chroot running on my Chromebook Pixel.  What that means is that I can write software, access my WebDav/Encrypted/KeePass files, and do everything I'm used to doing on a traditional device.  But there are two critical failures with this.  First is that I have to keep my Chromebook in developer mode which sucks. Second, and most importantly, I have to go back to the traditional paradigm of interacting with a traditional device.  To me that defeats the purpose of Chrome OS and turns it into just another pretty User Experience.

Only time will tell if Google can save this problem for both the average consumer and the techie. I do think it's possible to solve if you really understand the problem.

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