No one loves a deathmatch more than the tech press. It's great fun to handicap the opponents, talk knowingly about strategy, and trot out the quotes from Sun Tzu and the "Art of War." We're seeing that again as Google gives us a glimpse of the Chrome OS and drops hints about the shape of a future Chromebook.
Only this time there won't be a deathmatch. Indeed, the two contestants won't even get in the ring. When the first Chromebooks debut some time next year, they'll complement, not replace, the PC (or the Mac, for that matter). As they used to say on Seinfeld, "There's nothing wrong with that."
The most dead-on description of the situation was John Gruber's post over at Daring Fireball: "Maybe Instead of Two Cars, You Just Need a Car and a Bicycle." Exactly right.
The right tool for the job
I finally got around to reading (yes, all of it) "War and Peace" this fall. While sitting at an outdoor café, I reached a section on the battle of Austerlitz and realized I didn't know much about the 1805 dustup. Well, I reached for my iPhone, searched on Austerlitz, and quickly found as much information as I needed to enrich my understanding of the chapter.
On one level, it was an enjoyable and very cool amalgam of old -- very old -- media with the new. But more pertinent, I didn't use a PC and I didn't use Windows -- because I didn't need to. In that context, a simple tool that allowed me to browse the Web was the right tool.
When I got back to the office, I booted my PC and did what I needed to do: Write and research, and use tools like spreadsheets and presentations. Not to belabor what I think is a very simple concept, but it was the right tool for that job. So when writers like my colleague Randall C. Kennedy beat the stuffings out of the Chrome OS and consign it to "the dustbin of history" because it isn't Windows, I get a little impatient.
He writes: "It [Chrome OS] assumes that the world is ready to give up the traditional personal computing paradigm and live full time in the cloud." No, it does no such thing, anymore than the iPhone makes that assumption. It assumes that many, but not all, of the functions users crave are cloud-based. And they are.
I've found it interesting that, since I started using my iPhone, I spend significantly less time at the computer and working in Windows. I don't run back to my home office to check e-mail when I'm out and about, and I don't mind doing a bit of Web browsing from my living room. Sure, I could pick up my notebook and work from the couch, but why bother?
Remember, AT&T charges $30 a month for 3G data access. A simple Web appliance, which is what the Chromebook will be, won't require that. There are, of course, times when no Wi-Fi is available and you need 3G, so a smartphone (or a notebook) with cellular access is required. Once again, the right tool for the job is what you want.
Google will get it right -- eventually
As different as they are, Microsoft and Google have a few things in common: They both have incredibly deep pockets and are willing to invent and reinvent until satisfied with the end product.
As InfoWorld's Eric Knorr points out, people will want to use Chromebooks in airplanes or other places where going online isn't a reasonable option. Right now, it appears that the Chromebook won't even boot when it's not connected to the Internet. Well, that could change. And it wouldn't be difficult or terribly expensive to add a few simple offline versions of, say, Google Docs that could run on a small solid-state drive.
It's early days for the Chrome OS. And who knows, it may never be worth much. But not because it isn't Windows. The most interesting computing advances are happening away from the desktop, a trend that will only continue as we approach a new decade. Beating on the nascent OS is a distraction from the real deathmatch: Windows versus the cloud.
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