Back in the previous century I attended a meeting with a brand-new Silicon Valley company called Netscape. They had a wicked cool browser that let you view text and images side by side on the Web (!), as well as a news reader, email software, and a bunch of Web creation tools. Even stranger, they were giving most of this stuff away for free.
Sitting across the table from me was a Netscape engineer who excitedly described the company's vision of the future, one in which all machines would be connected to the Internet and anything anyone ever needed to do would be available inside their browser. The software would start up instantly, update itself automatically, and run for a decade on supercheap hardware -- no more $500 office suites, no need for a fussy, unreliable operating system and a three-year upgrade cycle.
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I looked at him. "There's this company up near Seattle called Microsoft," I said. "Ever heard of them?"
The Netscape guys dismissed my skepticism. They knew they had history on their side. That is the moment when I knew Microsoft would crush Netscape like a bug, flush its lifeless husk down the toilet, and scrub the spot where its boot had landed so that not even a stain remained. Back then, when it came to PC operating systems, it was Microsoft's way or the highway -- period.
Of course it was even worse than that: A few years later a defeated Netscape allowed itself to be acquired by AOL. Now all that remains is this vestigial popup window for Netscape News found on the Compuserve.com website, like a wayward broadcast signal from the 1930s that bounces around the troposphere until it eventually finds it way to your car radio.
Why this trip down memory lane? Because I sit here now, playing with the Acer C7 Chromebook, a $200 machine that starts up instantly, updates automatically, runs hundreds of apps entirely inside a browser, and contains not a shred of Microsoft technology. It is, of course, running the Google Chrome OS, but it's basically the computer that Netscape engineer described to me nearly 20 years ago.
This time, however, it's in a crush-proof box. Because as much as Microsoft would like to, there's no way it's going to crush Google -- not in what's left of my lifetime anyway.
I'm not saying Chromebooks are the end-all, be-all for computing. You are, of course, stuck using the apps that work with Chrome. If you happen to lose your Wi-Fi connection, there's a limited number of tasks you can perform on them -- mostly just use the offline versions of Google Docs and Gmail. The 3-pound C7 appears to have about four hours of battery life in it, which means it won't even last through a nonstop cross-country flight without a boost. You have to learn new ways of doing things, and if you're someone who likes to dig into the innards of your software to tweak stuff, you'll have a hard time getting there.