Why Google’s Cloud Computing vision has no silver lining for any of us

By James Plant

When their Chrome browser exploded into the limelight, Google took advantage of their increased involvement in the average user’s online experience to introduce the concept of Cloud Computing to the greater userbase. If you are unfamiliar with Google’s vision of the Cloud, the essence of this concept is that every action you do on your computer takes place through a web browser. The ideal conclusion of this is that the operating system as we know it ceases to exist, turning the home computer into a single-use web browser. Google are currently attempting to usher in this ideal with the release of Chrome OS, but is it too soon to be taken up and trusted by the average user? Let’s find out.

First of all, let’s compare a Samsung Chromebook with an average netbook;

 

Chromebook

Generic ‘wintel’ Netbook

CPU

Intel Atom N570 @ 1.66 GHz

Intel Atom @ ~1.6 GHz

Storage

16 GB SSD

Up to 320 GB HDD

Memory

2 GB RAM

1-2 GB RAM

Battery life

8.5 Hours

6-15 Hours

Connectivity

Wifi & Optional 3G

(50 MB free 3G, USA only)

Wifi & Optional 3G dongle

Price

£349 Wifi, £399 3G

£200-£300

On paper, the Chromebook used in this example appears to be entirely standard netbook fare, except for the platter-based hard disk being replaced with a low-capacity SSD. While at first this may seem to be a major disadvantage, the web-centric nature of Chrome OS means that all of a user’s files are stored online.

Online storage has some advantages, such as worldwide availability, but the very nature of such a service presents significant downsides compared to traditional local storage. All file access is limited by the speed of the computer’s internet connection, and inherent privacy issues rise from the storage provider potentially having access to every one of the user’s files. And what should happen in case of a hacking attack on the service provider, or a major system failure? Paranoia in the average user’s mind blow these issues massively out of proportion. It’s hard to trust a company you’ve never met with your files.

Google brand cloud computing as “Why it’s okay for a truck to run over your computer”. In reality, remote data storage is no safer than regular backups.

But while the lack of any offline storage is a disadvantage, the real problem here is the price. An entry level EEE PC running Windows 7 Starter can be picked up for a penny shy of £200, and at first and even second glance, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why the Chromebook should start at £150 more. It runs the operating system the average user knows, and can perform all the tasks they are likely to want to do – web browsing and office work – admirably. Windows 7 Starter’s performance shortfalls can be overcome by a tech-savvy user with a replacement operating system. And here we near the root of Google’s Chrome OS woes:

There is nothing stopping you from turning your generic PC into a Chromebook.

Google are tied by their use of open-source technology into releasing Chrome OS as source code under the name Chromium. One linux-savvy teenager later and a generic PC disk image is legally available for download and installation, entirely without Google’s blessing. But even more crucially, Chrome OS offers little which the Chrome browser does not. So even if the average user doesn’t want to download a disk image and install Chromium OS alongside or over Windows – something which is unlikely – they can download the Chrome browser in twenty seconds – something which is likely, especially factoring Google’s huge advertising push for the browser – and boom. They have practically the same user experience as the Chromebook for no extra charge over generic PC hardware. And better still, they have access to all the locally based Windows applications they trust, without the need for a constant and potentially pricey internet connection.

Speaking entirely from opinion, Chrome OS bothers me. While it makes sense for Google to want to push web-based services, they missed a perfect opportunity to become a big-name sponsor to a conventional desktop Linux distribution and bring it to the mass market. They have proven they can do this with Android – of which I am the biggest fan – when they bought it up in 2005 and made it the most widely sold smartphone operating system worldwide. They created the Windows of the smartphone world. And they did this with locally based software, not web apps.

Had they done this with Chrome OS, they could have marketed a realistic alternative to Windows available for generic PC hardware, backed by a trusted brand name.

Sales figures remain to be seen, but I think Chrome OS will fall flat, and potentially take trust in future cloud-based operating systems with it, damaging user trust at the time they become viable.

[James Plant is a blogger from a folded corner of the UK near Liverpool. He mainly sticks to infographics, but occasionally likes to blog like a human being.]

Got an opinion? Tell us in the comments!

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Keeping the G4 alive – A practical case study on modern use of Apple PowerPC hardware

By James Plant

In this latest segment of the digital age, the domestic computer market is dominated by the x86 processor architecture and its derivatives. Until the mid-2000s, Apple had been a major exception to this rule, placing only PowerPC processors at the core of their computers, and as a direct result, at the core of their software strategy. When the decision was made to switch to x86 with the rest of the industry, Apple transitioned their software strategy to the new architecture, slowly dropping official support for PowerPC. With OS X 10.6 marking the official end of the PowerPC era, can the architecture still hold relevance in an x86 world? Let’s find out.

The eMac was designed as a budget alternative to the ‘lamp’ style iMac G4.

First of all, let me speak from experience. Alongside a primary Linux-powered machine which I use for daily activities, I run a 1.25GHz eMac as a media center and my main field computer remains an 800MHz iBook G4. Both were purchased second-hand, the eMac in 2008 for £125, and the iBook G4 in 2011 for £60 noninclusive of minor upgrades. Both of these machines run OS X 10.4 and see daily use. I shall begin with the iBook, and for comparison I will use a EEE PC 1005PE bought late last year.

Unfortunately, the differing architectures and operating systems between the compared machines presents me with a significant roadblock in a comparison: To my knowledge, there is no benchmarking software common to both PowerPC OS X and Fedora Linux, making it impossible to gather benchmark scores with any meaning. In lieu of such a figure, I will list the specifications of each machine;

EEE PC 1005 PE

iBook G4

CPU

1.66GHz Intel Atom N450

800MHz IBM G4

Memory

1GB DDR2

640MB DDR

Storage

250GB

40GB

Screen size

10.1” 16:9

12” 4:3

Battery life

10 hours expected

6 hours per battery expected*

* I own more than one iBook battery

Unsurprisingly, given that it is a much more modern computer, the EEE PC out-performs the iBook on paper. In practice, however, the difference is not so clear-cut.

On a 802.11G WiFi connection with good signal strength, both machines load the landing page of this very site in the region of ten seconds, and both show signs of slowdown when the multitasking load begins to stack up. Booting time is similarly matched, at about one minute from power button to login prompt. It should be noted that the EEE PC is running Fedora Linux for these tests, and not the stock Windows 7 Starter.

Software support for the EEE PC is the usual Linux fare, but to my surprise the standard Linux fare also frequently extends to OS X in the form of PowerPC or Universal binaries, with many open-source projects still supporting the architecture. This surprising fact is the best bet for PowerPC in remaining relevant in the modern world, as almost all off-the-shelf Mac software this long after the Intel transition no longer supports the previous architecture. Even some closed-source software – For example, I am a Spotify subscriber – retains active development for PowerPC*.

The iBook G4 was the last of Apple’s PowerPC consumer notebooks

Moving on from the portable to the desktop, the eMac performs admirably as a media center, running Spotify – a subscription music streaming service – and playing DVDs. Web browsing is infrequent, as I use my aforementioned primary machine for such activities, although it should be noted that the extra megahertz in the 1.25GHz processor make it fast enough for most Flash objects and even Youtube. A comparison with my 2.8GHz quad-core primary machine would be completely unfair.

Both of my G4 powered machines are restricted by their PowerPC lineage, as in they cannot run the latest versions of OS X and off-the-shelf software is out of the question. While the computers are definitely past their prime, they are by no means obsolete. For most of the activities a user would want to do on the machine, the world of open-source provides an appropriate tool, often with a PowerPC package. Unless you have highly specific needs as a computer user, these older computers make excellent sidekicks to their more modern brethren, especially considering they can be picked up for petty cash online and in used hardware stores.

And while completely unconnected to their PowerPC hearts, it’ll look a damn sight nicer on your desk than a wintel rotbox.™

* This was true at time of writing, but as of October 2011 Spotify are soon to be dropping updates for the PowerPC platform, although I believe a legacy version of the player – as well as several unofficial players – will still be available.

[James Plant is a blogger from a folded corner of the UK near Liverpool. He mainly sticks to infographics, but occasionally likes to blog like a human being.]

Got an opinion? Tell us in the comments!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

eMac image courtesy Tyler9xp on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

iBook G4 image courtesy Akira Kamikura on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)