Six years ago Google began positioning it’s excellent browser, Chrome, as a operating system for so-called “cloud PCs” — computers that achieved full functionality when they were connected to the internet. At the time, when I was working at Lenovo, the concept was pretty far advanced and garnered some skepticism, especially inside of Lenovo which was deeply wedded to the Windows-Intel world of traditional computing. I was part of the advanced project team under Peter Gaucher and Peter Hortensius working on our own cloud PC, a gorgeous little Richard Sapper design called the Skylight which went on to win best in show at the 2010 CES but never was sold because the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor was too feeble to give the kind of user experience the newly launched iPad delivered.
I was a big advocate for Lenovo to make the Skylight a Chromium-OS machine, but we went our own way with a proprietary operating environment. I remained fixated on the notion of a browser-centric user-interface and OS, and ported Chromium onto a Lenovo S10 netbook with pleasing results.
Lenovo didn’t jump onto Chromebooks (they do apparently have a education-focused offering in their catalogue, but nothing for consumers) the way Acer, Samsung and Hewlett Packard did.
I ordered a C720 from Acer via Amazon a few weeks ago and have been using it as my primary portable PC. I have say the thing is remarkable for the price; $250, offers near full functionality, and is incredibly well integrated with my Google account (as one would expect). It’s fast, based on Intel’s Haswell architecture, and is the best crappy computer I’ve ever owned.
Although I’ve tended to be a Dropbox fanatic when it comes to cloud document storage, the Chromebook is pushing me back to Google Drive, even though Dropbox is perfectly usable through its web interface on the machine. The device plays movies beautifully, has great sound, a decent keyboard (not great), and a trackpad that does what it needs to do. I find myself touching the screen out of habit born from my Nexus 7 tablet, but for notetaking, quick blog posts, and looking stuff up, the machine is probably the single best technology purchase I’ve made in years. Sure the build quality is a little plasticky, and the cover is too stiff to pop open with one hand, but the battery goes for nine hours, the thing is thin and light, and will be toting it to London tonight and leaving behind my monster corporate issued Dell notebook with no regrets whatsoever.
Yes, the machine wants an internet connection to thrive, but I can use Gmail and the Google apps offline — on a plane for example — without much problem. This is my leave-hanging-around-the-house PC.
If I were Microsoft and trying to get traction on Surface, or any of the traditional PC companies hoping to hang onto hardware margins, the Chromebook category would give me the willies. These things now account for 10% of corporate and consumer PC purchases, literally coming out of no where. At the $250 price band they become semi-disposable — all the personal data is essentially in the cloud if they are lost or stepped on — and are far lighter to tote through an airport than a traditional notebook.