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Are we ready for the Chromebook?

Deepa Kurup
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Will customers want to invest in a ‘made for the Internet’ device that has limited storage

Starting this week, hardware vendors Hewlett Packard and Acer will sell Chromebooks in India. The much-hyped ‘made for the Internet’ devices come to the market at a time when netbooks, which, positioned as a small screen alternative to chunky laptops were quite a rage till last year, are beginning to lose out to tablets.

Google Inc. hopes that these devices, which run on its proprietary operating system Chrome, will fill the slot vacated by netbooks by offering a device that unlike netbooks has been “custom made for the Internet”.

India is among the first few emerging markets that the search giant has entered, and if top Indian Google execs are to be believed several vendors are keen on bringing Chromebooks here.

Priced at Rs. 22,999 and Rs. 26,990 for an 11.6-inch screen Acer C720 and 14-inch screen HP Chromebook respectively, the gadgets offer little by way of a great bargain.

Add to that, the fact that the Chromebook is very different from your traditional laptop, and one wonders if customers in a price-sensitive market such as India will venture investing in a secondary computer that offers limited storage and need to be connected to the cloud (yes, online) to attain full functionality.

Google is confident that given most of what we do on a computer today is more or less online, these custom made for the Internet devices will do well. The USP is of course the Chrome OS. As Google’s Vice-President, Products, Caesar Sengupta, puts it, the Windows operating system belongs to the pre-Internet era (Windows did try a complete overhaul in approach with Windows 8) and therefore operating systems have lagged the curve when it comes to meeting the speed and connectivity needs of users.

Chrome OS, on the other hand, is made to be used on the move, and largely to be used while logged on to the Web, says Mr. Sengupta. “Most of all, it’s really simple to use. Chrome users will feel at home, and even others will find the gadgets quick and simple. And every application you use comes pre-installed, so it's really easy for the not-so-computer savvy user to get going on this,” he explains.

Updated every six weeks

One big USP is that the OS is updated automatically, about every six weeks, an updation cycle that’s more comparable to browsers than OSs. While it is too soon to comment on security — given that malcode writers haven’t yet turned their gaze here — Google says that there is multi-layer security, Sandboxing technology from the Chrome browser (that prevents malware from installing) and read-only firmware which does a Verified Boot that uses a cryptographic hash verification on the operating system kernel every time the system is booted. The OS is also Linux-based, which itself makes it an inherently more stable and secure computing environment.

An elementary review of the ChromeBook reveals a product interface that’s really simple to use. It also starts up really fast, quite close to the eight seconds claim that Google has made. The interface is simple and seems like a cross between what one experiences on Chrome (while accessing Google’s services) and on an Android gadget. The gadget is made to use on the Internet, and more specifically tailor-made to get you deeper into the Google way of life. Obviously, all Google products are tightly integrated here, and in all likeliness work most optimally in this operating environment.

A prime drawback with the ChromeBook here is storage. Storage is limited, which means that it can only be your secondary device unless you’re willing to use the cloud for all your storage needs. Also, if you’re the kind of person who wants to install platform-agnostic applications (that is, something outside of the Google Chrome store) then think again. You can’t install, say another browser or a new kind of media player. You're more or less locked in to the Google way of life.

What could also be disconcerting for the Indian user, however, is that the OS is not designed for running sans Internet. The Chrome Store does offer some offline-ready apps, but it isn’t clear if one can use it like a regular laptop or if a glitchy network could mar user experience. Mr. Sengupta emphasises that these problems have been “taken care of”. “We understand that connectivity could be a concern, as it is in many parts of the world. So, we have support for offline.” Google Docs on a ChromeBook works offline by default, caches stuff locally and updates it when you connect again to the Internet.

More choices

The browser-turned-OS space is indeed hotting up, with the free software community behind Firefox slated to release their own operating system. “Yes, this is definitely getting to be an interesting space to track. We like what we are doing and it’s good to see that users are finally getting more choices where till now we’ve just had one dominant computing platform.”

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