David Weinberger
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The Cloud way of life

01 April 2011

I thought I loved the Cloud. I thought I was ready for the Cloud. I thought I could handle the Cloud. Then I got a Google notebook. And now I’m not so sure.

First, hats off to Google for taking the bold marketing step of sending out laptops to people who asked for them and people who did not. Way to get the conversation going, Google, even if it doesn’t always go your way. (No, I’m not being sarcastic.)

I hadn’t applied for a Google CR-48 notebook, but I thought one might be on the way when a person at Google Docs with whom I’d spent a morning asked me for my snail address. I spent the next few weeks sitting on our front porch, waiting for a Google-shaped box to arrive. (Disclosure: I’ve never been paid by Google for anything. And I’m keeping the notebook.)

When the Google notebook at last arrived, I immediately unpacked it, and it went through an extremely simple start-up routine. I was surfing the Web within minutes. Boot-up time is terrific, and I’m happy to report that for once a laptop actually goes to sleep and wakes up instantaneously—and so far without crashing—when you close and open the lid. What a breakthrough! (Now I am being sardonic.)

Ready? Not.

Google sent out the notebooks so we could see an early version of its Chrome operating system in action. The strengths and weaknesses of the hardware are therefore irrelevant. Nevertheless, it’s hard to write about my experience of the Chrome OS without some notes about the hardware package it came wrapped in. So: The notebook’s battery life is excellent even when continuously connected to wifi. It connects easily to your local wifi source. Web apps run well. It’s also hard to avoid noting that the trackpad is just about unusable, and the print on the keyboard is so faint that it is illegible (at least to my old eyes) without light directly on it.

But it’s as a proof of concept of Chrome OS that it really lost me. The main concept it proved to me is that I’m not ready to give up client processing and local storage.

In around 1995, when I worked at Open Text, the CEO then (and now executive chairman), Tom Jenkins, said that Netscape was aiming at being the new desktop. Tom was ahead of his time, but I don’t think even he meant that Netscape was aiming at literally replacing the Windows or Mac desktop, as opposed to becoming a platform on which Web apps could run. But the Chrome OS is the Chrome Web browser with no desktop underneath it. None at all. Close the browser and you’ve logged out of the computer. It makes you realize just how much you like having a desktop. Or, for those of us who basically never see our desktops because of all the windows we keep open, it makes you realize how much you like having a file system you can browse.

Chrome expects you to do everything on the Web. Everything. Want to do some word processing? Go to Google Docs, or Zoho, or whatever you prefer. Want to open up a document that you worked on yesterday? You’d better hope that you stored it at the Web site whose application you’re using. Want to get at a spreadsheet you created in 1996? Did you remember to upload it to your online spreadsheet application? Want to listen to music? Did you remember to move it into the Cloud?

When wifi is ubiquitous

Few of us are at the point where we’re willing to live entirely in the Cloud. For one thing, the applications we’ve grown to rely on generally don’t have functional Cloud-based equivalents. Do you use PowerPoint or Keynote? Try the Google Docs equivalent and tell me how much you love it. Do you use Word, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Pages or Scrivener? The Google Docs equivalent is a step back to the word processor you were using 15 years ago, aside from its excellent simultaneous editing feature (which is useful twice a year and mainly as a party novelty).

That assumes, of course, that there’s a wifi source nearby. Without a wifi connection, the CR-48 is not a bundle of joy. As a result, I use it only at home where I can rely on wifi being on. A laptop that you dare not take out of the house: really not what I’m looking for.

Someday there will be ubiquitous wifi. Someday Web apps will be as fully developed as our local apps, and they’ll have the advantage of being connected to networked collaborators. But we’re a long way from that day. Until then, what I want is a snappy browser able to run sophisticated Web apps, on top of a competent desktop and file system. Especially with the recent addition of the ability to run processes in the background, that’s exactly what we have with Chrome the Browser. The Chrome OS is for a time that does not yet exist. If Google wants to provide a free, Web-savvy OS, given that we still live between earth and heaven (um, local and Cloud), a bundle of Linux plus an enhanced Chrome browser seems like a more practical and useful way to go.