The Best Analogy for Chromebooks are iPads

In response to yesterday’s post about Chromebooks and the Cost of Complexity, Vance McAlister passed along this great post of his that nailed what is so appealing about ChromeOS:

The true value in ChromeOS is what it DOESN’T have. Critics say “a Macbook or Windows laptop will give you the same Chrome browser, plus a lot more as well!”, but that misses the point entirely. Those laptops don’t come with the killer feature of ChromeOS: the LACK of a traditional OS.

The lack of a traditional OS means you do not have to deal with the myriad frustrations of Windows, Mac or even Linux. You get instant on, constant updates, no registry corruption, no accumulated accretions and eventual slowdowns, no viruses and conflicts. In theory, as long as the hardware holds up, a ChromeOS device will be as slick and responsive in five years as it is out of the box.

Bingo. This is why two of the most repeated claims about Chromebooks completely miss the point:

  • Using a Chromebook = Using the Chrome browser on a Mac or PC No, it doesn’t. As McAlister wrote, you don’t have to deal with any of the OS cruft1 endemic on all other operating systems. Moreover, there are aspects of ChromeOS that make the browser experience better, particularly the ability to put Chrome web apps2 in the taskbar and launch them in their own window; you effectively have two hierarchies of navigation for web pages: tabs and taskbar icons.
  • Chromebooks = Netbooks Actually, they are the exact opposite sort of experience. Netbooks had a full operating system crammed into tiny cheap hardware. They were terrible. Chromebooks have similar hardware to Windows PCs (or similar to Macs, in the case of the Pixel), but with a dramatically simpler and more lightweight user experience. It’s “inexpensive”, not “cheap”, because the experience isn’t compromised.

In fact, the best comparison for a Chromebook is not a Windows PC, but an iPad. Both are appliance-like devices that are easy-to-use, impossible-to-break, and designed first and foremost for the experience, not the feature list. And, if you write like Dr. Drang and need multiple windows, a Chromebook is in fact superior to the iPad.

Ultimately, as I wrote in The (Alleged) 13-inch iPad and the Triumph of Thin Clients, I think we’re headed to a multiple-appliance future:

Today’s thin clients, on the hand, specialize. A pure tablet is superior for touch-based applications; a pure PC is superior for keyboard-and-mouse ones. An e-ink reader is superior for reading, and a 13-inch iPad would be superior for (in my case) drawing and making music. And while many people now use two devices, I think that’s only the beginning (I’m personally at four and the 13″ iPad would be number five).

I wrote that post having lived a month with nothing but a Pixel3 and an iPad, and while I’m back to a MacBook Pro for work, that doesn’t invalidate the Chromebook. I simply prefer the best tool for any particular job, not a Swiss Army Knife. I’m continually surprised that so many geeks in particular assume the latter is inevitable.

As for the normals,4 I think the biggest challenge for Chromebooks is a marketing one; OEMs aren’t exactly clued in to the idea that less is more, and are more likely to overpromise functionality instead of being honest with potential buyers about what a Chromebook can’t do.5 And that’s a shame: dealing with a once-a-month Excel spreadsheet6 can be either a momentary annoyance or a massive frustration, based on nothing more than your expectations.

  1. This is why I never use touch on the Pixel, despite liking it on Windows 8; it turns out most of my touch interactions were with dialog boxes and the like, which just don’t exist on ChromeOS. That and the fact the great trackpad makes scrolling a breeze
  2. This guide shows you how to create a local Chrome web app out of any website
  3. Speaking of the Pixel, McAlister nails it:

    If you are one of those lucky ones NOT tied to a traditional OS and can happily live full time in ChromeOS, then why should you be relegated to inferior hardware? If ChromeOS is the right OS for you, shouldn’t you have the option of a high-end machine as much as a Mac or Windows user? Why would this seem odd?

    Made sense to me, and (but for the crappy battery life) I couldn’t be more pleased with my Pixel

  4. Chromebooks make great guest computers if people ever want to borrow a computer; my parents stayed a week and my dad simply logged on with his Gmail account and was happy as a clam, with zero effect on me. Also, there is a guest login that doesn’t require any Google account at all
  5. Enterprise and institutional buyers (i.e. schools) on the other hand, are well-informed and are already driving Chromebook adoption
  6. Hint: use the web-based Office apps