Many Chromebook Reviews So Short-Sighted

It is disappointing that so many otherwise competent writers on technology are publishing totally dismissive reports about Chromebooks.

I should start by admitting I don’t yet have a Chromebook to test, but I can’t wait to get one and use it productively. This post was triggered by a colleague sending me the post by Galen Gruman with the indicative title ‘Whatever You Do, Never Buy a Chromebook’. Yes, it was a totally negative review, negative piled on negative. The only ones I agree with are the lack of Bluetooth, Skype and convenient printing. Personally I see the ’primitive’ hardware and OS as huge positives. I have a great deal of my files already in the cloud and look forward to having more of them there.  Better a Chromebook that a PC/Mac laptop costing up to 5 times as much.

I already have constant Wi-Fi/3G Internet connection on my iPhone/iPad devices where perhaps less than 10% of my work/recreation/socializing can be done without the Internet. I stream everything where I can such as podcasts, music and video, and only ebook reading and game playing are done offline. Chromebooks have instant on from sleep just like iPhone/iPad and boot from cold in a quarter of the time. Laptop boot times are left in the dust.

A much more balanced and believable article is by Audrey Watters entitled ‘A Day Without Native Apps: My Chromebook Experiment’. She actually used her Chromebook for a day’s real work, and mentions the sometimes unexpected pros and predictable cons. After a day her conclusion ‘ at the end of the day, despite a lot of reservations, I think the Chromebook is very much doable for most folks’, grudging admission of some capability.

I think both authors missed out in considering the significant long-term benefits. Chromebooks automate or eliminate many common, time-intensive tasks like application distribution, deployment and installation, patching, and upgrades. No upgrading ever is huge, judging by the constant complaining of my friends and neighbours and their parents and kids. Even their iPhones/iPads languish with tiny numbers of apps and old versions of iOS. The constant need for upgrading is a killer. Although not an Android user my guess is the same applies to those smartphones. What use an app for everything if few know how to use native apps.

The tiny attack surface and lack of local storage are other major pluses for Chromebooks. There is no need to purchase licences for anti-virus, data encryption and data back-up software, all major problems for my not-so-tech-literate friends.

For those who think that Chromebooks are just an experiment that will eventually be swallowed by Android take a look at the post by Alex Chitu with the title ‘Google Makes Money from Chromebooks’. It would seem that many commentators on technology are selling Google short.

When I have a Chromebook in my hands I may be proved wrong but currently my confidence is high that everyday users, not computer-savvy tech writers, will see Chromebooks as an answer to their prayers. Here’s a mother-in-law who has even loves a CR-48!

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Chromebooks Take Us Closest So Far to a Post-PC Era

2011-05-29 SNAG-00I believe the coming of the Chromebook is the nearest we will come in the next months to the so-called post-PC era. Many scoff at the Chromebook as being already superceded by the tablet, indeed we are seeing the term crapbook becoming popular, but I beg to differ.

Apple luddites keep up the mantra of the iPad leading us into a post-PC world. I love my iPad but it definitely is not a PC replacement but most certainly is a PC-extender and, for that matter, an iPhone-extender. My iPad is integrated into my daily life at times and places where neither a PC or phone are useful devices. But as I have noted before the iPad is not a laptop replacement, and is only a first step towards a post-PC era.

Most definitions of a post-PC era, like Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester, point out strongly that we are not talking about PC replacement. She emphasises the obvious post-PC transitions; stationary to ubiquitous with anytime/anywhere computing; formal to casual with instant-on devices; arms-length to intimate with always-with-us devices; and, abstracted to physical with touch and gestures.

Laptops and/or desktops will continue to be our motherships with sales over the next few years still predicted to continue at present levels although rate of increase will almost certainly decline. But what Google are now sensibly calling Chromebooks are the nearest I’ve seen yet to a viable, genuine PC replacement, provided we are willing to work only with cloud-based apps and data.

My earliest post about working online was over 3 years ago. Since then I have been lobbying for working in the cloud to become the norm as more and more viable cloud services become available to replace native apps on desktops/laptops. Even native smartphone apps that allow us to be creative must use a cloud backend to store the objects of creation in order to be useful.

You can read the persuasive overview of Chromebooks from Google but for working effectively post-PC the key features for me are:

  1. laptop form factor with productive keyboard and mouse editing; on smartphones/tablets swipe scroll and pinch zoom are great for navigation but poor for editing large bodies of text; even tapping for selection needs finger-sized buttons/links
  2. Chromebook independence; access your private app, documents and settings from literally any Chromebook; allows secure sharing of physical laptops
  3. forever fresh; this Google slogan is my favourite; Chrome OS, browser and apps are always the latest version – no tethering to update a myriad apps; no old versions to become a security risk
  4. potentially improved security; browsers bring the advantage of a security sandbox in any case; this now extends to the whole machine
  5. USB and SD device support and limited but recognisable local filestore; starts to match expectations we have for PCs

Chromebooks match tablets with Wi-Fi/3G support for being always connected, with the same battery life, and with an 8-second boot time and instant resume.

One of the first questions people ask is ‘can I turn my existing laptop/netbook into a Chromebook?’ I would answer no since points 2 through 4 above are not supported on existing hardware. Chromebooks are definitely a new class of device although on the surface they look like compact laptops or large netbooks.

Of course I admit I haven’t handled or used a Chromebook, and in Australia it looks like I have still a few months to wait beyond the 15 June release in the US and major European countries. I comment here on the concepts only. Provided Chromebooks perform as expected I suggest they will soon become devices of choice for individuals, businesses and educational institutions.

[As an aside I used Scrible for the first time to collect and assemble material for this post and have been impressed by my increase in productivity.]

Survey of Student Devices and Sites

I was able to conduct my annual online survey of the computing and handheld devices used by my CORE114 Knowledge Society class over the last few days. The questions were adjusted to come in line with a similar survey conducted by colleagues with a new media class, so they are not quite directly comparable to my 2010 survey.

At the time of writing 116 students (63%) had replied out of a class of 184. Students are drawn approximately equally between our Business, Law and Humanities faculties, and for 40% of students it is there first semester. The computing devices results are:

2011-05-24 SNAG-00

Approximating doubling from last year 52% use Macs. Counting netbooks as well 72% use Windows machines. In one year tablet use, presumably almost all iPads, has grown from nothing to 14%. My first surprise was the low usage of ereader devices at just 2%.

All students surveyed owned a mobile phone of which 91% are Internet-enabled. The breakdown of mobile phone manufacturers shows the dominance of Apple iPhones at 59%. All but one of the Other category are HTC phones which puts them on a par with Blackberry and Samsung.

2011-05-24 SNAG-02

Again all students surveyed used online sites for their communications of various types with Facebook dominating at 92%. The only near competitor is the 83% use of online email. Twitter use is about the average for the population as a whole. The only disappointment is the low use of LinkedIn. At 8% this will need to grow as the students’ future employers are relying heavily on LinkedIn information to decide on who they will recruit. Blog use again, at 14%, is about the norm, and hopefully will increase as they become familiar with their weekly blogging task in the early weeks of the subject.

2011-05-24 SNAG-03

Overall these numbers confirm the increasing use of Macs and the near universality of Facebook. At only 3% I found Foursquare use disappointingly low especially as it may be a useful tool in tracking students within the university context.

Conference Live Streaming with Catch-up Recordings

What a wonderful technology we have now for live streaming with catch up recording for the modern conference. I attended the CCA-EDUCAUSE 2011 conference in person where recordings are sadly only available to delegates. 

However one of the impressive CCA-EDUCAUSE keynote speakers, @BryanAlexander, tweeted a link to his organisation’s annual conference, the NITLE Summit, which is live streaming and making the recordings available to the world. This is how it should be done.

2011-04-07 SNAG-00

Mobile Devices and Online Tools Student Survey

As I did with a larger class last semester I just surveyed my current class on their use of mobile devices and various online tools. Whereas the large class represented students from 3 out of 4 faculties at MPOW the survey results below are from a current class of only 14 School of IT students taking a level 2/3 IT subject – advanced web applications.

2010-09-27 SNAG-01

As might be expected the group is heavily PC-centric and between them no tablets or e-readers are to be found. Laptops dominate netbooks. The 57% smartphone usage is close to double that found last semester (32%).

Virtually all (93%) use web-based email with Gmail (57%) being dominant (it was Live mail well ahead last semester at 72%).

My third chart has no equivalent last semester. The 93% using social networking is no surprise. Use of blogs and wikis (even if mainly for reading) is higher than I would have imagined. Obviously geolocation sites are becoming important more quickly than I expected. Use of microblogs (mainly Twitter) remains disappointingly low.

A final question asked for their popular sites visited regularly. I am still teasing out this information as it contains many software development sites that are new to me and need investigation.

Zotero Everywhere in the Nick of Time

I’ve been a Zotero fan for a number of years but just 10 days ago I reassessed its utility in the light of its Firefox-only access. I increasingly use Chrome and IE in addition to Firefox and I now need to create/edit references on the iPad – a Firefox desert. It was time to look for a better reference management solution.

My own use of Zotero is biased to recording web pages, literally. Zotero in creating a web link reference takes a complete copy of the page contents, HTML, style sheets, images, scripts, data files – everything. This means my roughly 1000 references occupies 900 MB across more than 70,000 folders and files! Definitely more than the 500 MB of free online storage available.

So as I have reported before I have used Live Mesh and now Live Sync to share the 900 MB across multiple machines. Unfortunately the newest beta of Live Sync (soon to be renamed Live Mesh – great job Microsoft, no) when upgraded in place has severe interface issues although the syncing still works in the background. My Zotero store with its 70,000 files is huge edge test case for Live Sync – a new machine added to the sync takes over a day to be complete!

In any case it was time to clear out old Zotero references and with a few hours work I reduced my reference store by 35% and looked around for a replacement. I had tried Mendeley and CiteULike before. However it was receiving a link from Martin Weller (@mweller) to his shared Mendeley library for his book on digital scholarship that made me look again. I discovered Mendeley to be accessible for all browsers and comes with a powerful bookmarklet with a wider range of successful reference capture particularly from the journals, open access sites, Google Scholar and the like that I tend to use.

The Windows desktop client for Mendeley is good and there is also an iPad client. Like Zotero a complete copy of a web page can be captured by Mendeley although more conveniently a single HTML file is generated rather than the plethora of tiny files in Zotero. Mendeley is designed to store PDF files from which to extract metadata so comes with 500 MB of online storage for free. My switch to Mendeley began and has been proceeding smoothly. The export of references from Zotero for import to Mendeley is near the top of my to-do list.

Then today, in the nick of time for me at least, comes the announcement of Zotero Everywhere:

Zotero Everywhere will have two main components: a standalone desktop version of Zotero with full integration into a variety of web browsers and a radically expanded application programming interface (API) to provide web and mobile access to Zotero libraries.

Funds from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation have made this possible.

Today we are announcing support for Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and Microsoft Internet Explorer, which account for 98% of the web’s usage share. Plugins for these browsers will soon allow users to add anything they find on the web to their Zotero libraries with a single click, regardless of the their browser preferences. Rather than use the Zotero pane in Firefox, users will have the new option of accessing their libraries via a standalone desktop version of Zotero, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux.

So I can happily continue with Zotero although it will now have to compete with a very competent Mendeley. In particular I will want to see the ‘blizzard of small files for web page capture’ problem eliminated.

iPad Not the Only Mobile Learning Device

2010-09-10 001 (640x480)The stream of articles and blog posts around the general theme of ‘iPad transforms education’ seems endless. Most include a list of tasks that can be done with an iPad, but virtually none of the pieces point out that virtually all of those tasks can be performed with other widely available, less expensive, equally portable and useable, and often more capable mobile devices like netbooks and even lightweight laptops.

I urge writers and readers alike to continually ask the question ‘the iPad can do it but can it also be done equally with other mobile devices’. At a rough guess well over 95% of the time this is true. It is important to be very clear about which tasks only the iPad can accomplish. Equally, be clear about which tasks only the other mobile devices can perform.

It is clear to me that many writers about the iPad have no idea what a netbook, for example, can offer. I use my iPad and Samsung N210 netbook (shown above) side by side through the day. I can’t bring myself to settle for just one of these devices, both have their strengths. This is my table of comparison.

Feature iPad 3G Samsung N210
Cost $926 (w/case, adapters) $638 (w/3G USB, BT mouse)
OS iOS 3.2 Windows 7 Starter
Multitasking No Yes
Weight 870 g 1318 g
Battery hours 10 10
Storage 16 GB 250 GB
UX Touch, onscreen keyboard Mouse, real keyboard
Start-up time ~ 1 second ~ 5 seconds (from sleep)
~ 40 seconds (from cold)
Shutdown time ~ 1 second ~ 15 seconds (to sleep)
~25 seconds (to cold)
GPS Yes No
Mic Yes Yes
Camera No Yes
Apps Very large number Windows app universe
Browsers Very few, no Flash All with all video formats
VGA out for projector Adapter that few apps support Yes
USB ports 1 with crippled photo-only adapter 3
Flash card reader Adapter Yes
Personal portability score 90% 80%

Where one or other device is at a major disadvantage I have coloured the feature red. Most other features are common such as 3G service, audio socket, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, screen size and resolution. I should also point out that it is possible for me to buy a netbook with 3G on board, having a solid state drive with lightning on/off times, and being significantly thinner and lighter for the same or cheaper price – even more of an iPad competitor.

My own portability measure takes into account that the iPad can go with me to more places but is a little heavy (compared to a Kindle for example) and eventually needs to be tethered to a PC/Mac for umbilical iTunes sync.

The big deal breakers with the iPad are very significant:

  1. High price
  2. Productive information gathering (document and repository), creation and editing requires a full-featured filestore, rapid app switching and sophisticated copy and paste, all missing from the iPad
  3. Access to all features of browser-accessed online services such as Google Docs (and many others), particularly the creation capabilities via Safari on iPad is cut off from many of these services
  4. Browser add-ons and extensions that perform powerful, productive tasks are not available; only an occasional bookmarklet works on Safari

While individual iPad apps can alleviate some of the problems the current navigation between hundreds of apps is tedious and unproductive in the extreme.

Of course to be fair there are iPad features that puts it, at the moment, into a class of its own:

  1. The instant on/off capability of the iPad raises productivity a great deal; this leads to quick checks and lookups of information never before possible on a large-screen mobile device
  2. Location-based apps and services using GPS; the cell tower location service comes a distant second
  3. Consumption of all online information and media is ultra-convenient

These comments will very soon be old hat because:

  • Android-based tablets will bring all iPad features (except the polish of the user interface) together with the netbook prices, i/o ports and OS features as well as apps, although lacking the Windows apps universe
  • Windows Phone 7 (WP7) phones will be here well before year end and will challenge the iPhone/iPod touch and Android mobile phones. It will be the expected WP7 slates in my view that will in the next year start to become strong iPad competitors.
  • HP WebOS slates are likely to make their mark in the iPad space too.
  • Windows 7 slates are more problematic, both in their date of introduction, and their likely ability to challenge the iPad on responsiveness, battery life and a touch interface designed from the ground up.

For me, I expect to be writing a similar post to this in about 6 months comparing my Android tablet with my iPad.