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Chromebook: The Computer for the Rest of Them

Everybody who wants a Chromebook seems to want it for someone else -- not for themselves.

Google's first Chromebooks shipped today. Cloud-based laptops from Samsung and Acer running Google's Chrome OS were scheduled to ship today, and Samsung's actually did.

As promised the Samsung Series 5 went on sale on amazon.com and BestBuy. The Acers are expected to hit by the end of the month.

Everyone seems to think that Google's new Chromebook is a great laptop -- for someone else. Apple's slogan for the original Macintosh in 1984 was: "The computer for the rest of us." The slogan for the Chromebook should be: "The computer for the rest of them."

Chromebooks won't be used by most Google employees. They need "real" computers to build the world's most successful search engine and all the other products and services Google builds. Google's work is too important for Chromebooks.

My fellow tech pundits and I will try Chromebooks, and maybe use them occasionally. But we'll all rely on our Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS and Android devices for our own work.

Most Chromebooks, no doubt, will be purchased by IT professionals -- not for their own use, but for clueless users, as the latest attempt to prevent those users from screwing everything up and wasting the IT department's time.

The second biggest buyer of Chromebook laptops will probably be school IT departments. Again, not for their own use, but for the students.

Some parents may want them for their kids. Some kids may want them for their parents.

Everybody who wants a Chromebook seems to want it for someone else.

Chromebooks offer a compelling list of benefits. They boot in 10 seconds, then last 8.5 hours on a charge. Because all apps and data live "in the cloud" (on some server somewhere), they don't vanish when your hardware dies or goes missing.

Chromebooks come in cheap Wi-Fi only versions, and more pricey 3G varieties, which also support Wi-Fi. Prices range from $350 for the Wi-Fi-only Acer unit to $500 for the 3G Samsung device. Companies can rent them for $30 a month.

But the Chromebook concept also has major flaws. The company intends to update the software without notifying anyone. That means IT departments can't test those updates before rolling them out.

The biggest flaw is that without an Internet connection, Chromebooks become seriously hobbled. While some apps, such as Google Docs and Gmail, work offline, most apps won't work without a connection.

Based on demos (I won't get my hands on one until later), Chromebooks appear to be innovative and well thought-out. The problem is that they're not best at anything.

The user experience and ease of use is probably good, but iPad is better. They have instant-on, but not nearly as instant as iPads and Android devices. They're cheap, but full-powered laptops and netbooks are cheaper. They have long battery life, but not as long as iPad. They have bigger screens than iPad, but not as big as regular laptops. Chromebooks support the cloud, but so does everything else.

In order for a new platform to succeed, somebody's got to want it for themselves. In the enterprise, the Chromebook competes primarily with Windows PCs, which have proved their popularity by being the biggest-selling computing platform in history. And in the consumer space, Chromebooks compete against the iPad, which people stood on the sidewalk for all night in frenzied anticipation on the day it launched -- and even on the launch of the 2.0 version nightly for weeks as additional units trickled into stores.

Nobody is lining up to buy the Chromebook. There's no popular enthusiasm for it at all. Even Google's Android platform on tablets, which is running a distant second place to Apple's iOS iPad, has some rabid fans.

In order for a platform to succeed, it doesn't have to be the best at everything, but it has to be best at something. The Google Chromebook is best at nothing.

If Chromebooks cost $200, weighed less than a pound, got more than 24 hours of battery life, stored data and app files locally, had giant screens or had any single feature than was best in the industry, then it could find fans and success, even if niche success. But it's just a laptop minus the benefits of local apps and data. It's just an iPad minus the spectacular touch interface. It's just a netbook minus the super low price.

The only problem Chromebooks appear to solve is the user problem. By buying a Chromebook for those other people, hopefully they'll go away and leave me alone.

I'm sorry, Google, but that's not a very compelling vision for a computing platform.






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