28 December 2010

Google CR-48

A year or so ago I was working with one of the companies in discussions with Google about the design and development of a netbook running ChromeOS. Sadly, we were not selected for the program. Regardless, I was really intrigued by the idea and tracked the development as best I could over time.

Given this, it should be no shock that when Google announced a "Pilot program" for testing out a sort of "reference model" notebook running ChromeOS - I signed up.

I did so with little to no expectation of being selected - and thus promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Cut to Christmas week. My girlfriend (the ever lovely Valerie) was at home when a package was delivered with an unclear sender - addressed to me. She assumed this was a Christmas present for me, wrapped it and put it under the tree. Come Christmas morning, I found myself opening a present from Google. Really quite cool!

Given that the point of this program was for Google to gather input from the various test subjects, I'm going to write up my thoughts on it here and now.

So... what is it?

The Cr-48 notebook ("netbook"?) is a piece of reference hardware for Google ChromeOS. It's basically a small laptop computer running an operating system that manifests as a browser.

It's entirely network-centric (perhaps just web centric in fact). It's obviously got wifi, but also supports (Verizon) 3G service as well. It's got an attractive 12-inch LCD display and a solid state drive. It's simple soft touch matte black without any markings, names or branding.

The learning curve on the machine is a poor way to look at it as learning how to use the machine is instant for anyone who has used the web, ever - but getting used to a laptop that ONLY uses the web is a serious psychological hurdle.

Now, the reality is that more than 75% of my time is spent using the web - and that in fact much of the remaining 25% could be web based as well if I were not so used to specific tools. But reality is sometimes trumped by emotion - and this is kind of one of those cases. It just feels wrong to only have a browser....

After going through hell trying to get my mother's new iPad up and running it was really nice to be able to simply enter my Google Account info and have everything work. No hooking up to other computers, no installing software, no validations and double opt-ins. It was just working. Now... I use Google Apps for work and for home - so it might not be so simple for other people. But for those who've adopted the Google ecosystem fully, the migration is frictionless.

Once I'd played with the machine for a couple of days I realized that it is use-case specific (rather than either general purpose or purpose specific). For example, when my parents were visiting they needed to frequently borrow a laptop to check email, manage flight reservations, etc. For this all they needed was a browser. But we had to lend them one of our laptops (meaning we couldn't be working on them), and there were the periodic errors due to their unfamiliarity with the software / systems we run. Having a notebook like the CR-48 would have made this dramatically easier for everyone. The device has a built-in Guest account that dumps them straight into an (incognito mode) browser. Safe, simple, clean. Or (as another example) when traveling for work (as opposed to pleasure) I can't simply take a phone (smart or not) because I need to be able to do demos, log info into Salesforce or Sugar, etc. Taking a CR-48 would work brilliantly for this.

As soon as I accepted it was not a replacement for my existing laptop and instead is supplementary, the device really starting working for me.

In addition, once I stopped thinking about it as a "computer" and instead starting thinking "mobile internet device" I was able to get over the emotional hurdle and be fine with the constraints of the approach.

At this point I realized the power of the device. This truly could be the start of "commodity computing". By explicitly tying to the internet ("cloud") and building constraints that enforce this - and assuming the price is correct (ie low) - you can see the development of an ecosystem that takes computing from things like "business computing" and "entertainment / gaming computing" and instead atomizes it into these sort of use-case specific devices.

Yes... price is going to have to be low. And that's a valid concern. But if they nail the price thing, you could see this approach doing very real disruptive damage. Not to folks like Apple, but to the near-commodity folks like Dell and Microsoft.

And thus we get to the big point.

If I were working and Microsoft I'd be scared shitless by this device. Microsoft's licensing revenues for their various flavours of OS are very significant. And I think we can assume that ChromeOS is either going to be free for licensing or something damn close.

For commodity hardware vendors, this creates a really interesting dilemma (and some huge opportunities). It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out. My bet is that we're going to see some devices appear that run ChromeOS that are very "non computer" like.

My one sadness is that we wouldn't have created a traditional laptop for Google. Because the form factor of this device forces users to go through the same voyage I went through to discover that the true power is being freed from "computers" and instead given the power of atomized devices. If Google had only made this more clearly not a computer it would have been far easier to understand why this could be cool.


- Design is always subjective, but I love the soft-touch, matte black, no-logo look and feel of the device.

- The machine is very light, cool feeling, simple, quiet… It doesn’t feel cheap, but it feels like it’s “easy”

- Integration with Google Apps and accounts is flawless.

- Battery life is fantastic.

- The screen is better than expected.

- The experience of using the machine (once you get used to the constraints and identify the use-cases where it makes sense to you) is really great. It’s quick and easy and cheerful etc. The fast start-up is amazing.


- The touchpad is absolutely unacceptable and basically unusable. It’s twitchy and unresponsive and offers little flexibility or interesting interaction. I’ve spent a ton of time trying to “tune” it but it’s really terrible.

- The lack of Skype is insane. Skype is, effectively, one of the “killer apps” that is required for a device like this to make sense. Without Skype, I simply cannot use this for the primary set of use-cases.

- While Flash seems to work in many cases, it doesn’t work well at all on Vimeo (and, for that matter, the HTML5 player for Vimeo also doesn’t work).

It’s impossible to say if I’d buy one or not as I don’t know how much it would cost.

If it had a better touchpad and had Skype support - how much would I pay for one and would I use it? If it were less than $400 I would absolutely buy one and would use it whenever I was traveling or in transit. I’d use it on the sofa. I’d take it to business meetings.

I'd lend it to my parents and other guests.

Thanks for the nice Christmas present Google! I'm sorry I didn't get you anything this year....


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