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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