Going fully online: Part 2. How to embrace the cloud
So exactly three weeks after unpacking my Chromebook and two weeks since I started my heroic journey into the cloud, I’m back. Not hurt, not chastened, still happy. My old, worn-out Macintosh still lies unloved and unused in the corner. I’ve only fired it up once to get a few files that I felt sure were hiding in it. So far, so good (see - Going fully online: Part 1. Biting the Chrome OS bullet)
First, a few words on the HP Chromebook 11 (yes, the one with the overheating power supply problem). It’s a lovely little beast with a nice, robust keyboard (my touch typing is more like aggravated keyboard assault, so it has to be) and an acceptable, but small, screen. That’s about all you can say about a Chromebook, but just in case this review is getting a little gushing, there is a problem with multiple tabs. They seem to slow down the on-screen response so that after a day working on the HP 11 I have to execute a tab cull just to get the response back to normal.
I’m already looking forward to a next generation with a larger screen and slicker screen handling, but without the price tag of Google’s Pixel.
Performance: does it do the job?
The Chromebook has been on journeys away from its usual WiFi connection and has thus had its mobile utility tested. Wherever I’ve gone it has had no problem finding (or remembering) a new WiFi connection. If WiFi were to become unavailable then I am able to tether to a cell connection (will check that out for you in a later installment).
Its extreme lightness (it’s really like a very large smartphone) has been a plus - no aching shoulder syndrome. Equally impressive has been its long(ish) battery life of about 4.5 hours. It depends how much you use it and for what, of course.
OK, that’s the hardware out of the way. What about the cloud?
In the infamous Microsoft ad (see - Microsoft enters into the spirit of Xmas (and tries to rip Google’s head off) Microsoft goes straight for the jugular and commits the “if it’s not connected, it’s pretty-much a brick” slur. There’s an obvious rebuttal here: today, if any computer or tablet or smartphone is not connected it’s pretty-much a brick, but that’s not the smart response. The smart response is that, on the contrary, there is now a lot that Chrome OS users CAN do when offline.
Google has moved Chrome OS on so that it’s possible to play games. Not that I play Angry Birds on it - when I’m offline I usually like to sleep, but if I wanted to I could work on documents or spreadsheets and maybe compose some email replies (my most likely application and I will do so next time I’m out and report back).
The files you work on are automatically sync’d to those held on Google Drive and apps (such as Google Mail) undertake the necessary sends when the connection is re-established.
But again - how often are you offline? If you find yourself cut off (fog over the Channel, Europe isolated) you’d be better off using your phone to get yourself back online by paying the broadband bill, rather than working in offline mode (just a thought).
Then there’s security and backup. This is the other vociferously-held objection to Chrome OS and life in the cloud. Security? Well at this stage Chrome OS is free from parasitic malware (as far as we know) but that could change of course as the target grows larger.
As with Android, there are real security and privacy concerns given Google’s business model (you are the product etc). As Microsoft points out in the notorious ads, Google supplies name/post code/email to every software vendor every time it sells or distributes a Web app. That sort of thing must be watched, but is it really that outrageous? You, the Chrome OS user, have just completed a commercial transaction and an exchange of ID is fairly usual, even in the REAL world. What’s the problem?
I must admit I find it hard sometimes to get over-ventilated by much of Google’s information collecting. It seems to me that the problems that arise usually come with companies misusing information (by giving it to the security services, for instance) not in their collecting it. As far as I’m concerned, when Google misuses information, its feet, thighs and buttocks should all be held to the fire, but until that happens I don’t feel particularly threatened and I don’t find its ad placement as annoying as that of Facebook.
I’m also reminded that before technical and trade journalism went online, collecting reader information so that we could place ads in front of those reading our magazines and newspapers (the right job title, right sector, right country) who were most likely to buy a particular expensive item (a mainframe computer, say) was the lifeblood of the business - it was, and is, called controlled circulation.
Back-up and disaster recovery
One argument against personal cloud computing is a partly emotional one - and one I understand as a long-term computer user. It goes: “You can’t entrust your data to an essentially untrustworthy entity like a cloud service provider. What if they lost it? It just feels slightly precarious.”
Well yes. I get that. Anyone who has juggled disks to complete a monthly (or less) complete back-up of all their important data, knows the agony of losing files, of crashing hard disks, of lost or stolen laptops. It’s an ongoing nightmare and an open wound.
I sat in front of my first proper computer in 1981. It was a Tandy (Radio Shack) job and I think it had a huge, single 8 inch floppy disk drive. Very difficult to back up my text files. That was followed by a now almost forgotten Apple III (pre-Macintosh). That had two floppies as I remember it. But back-up was always the problem and always the thing that you never really did properly, if at all. And so it continued.
But for me, it’s turned out that cloud means not having to say you’re sorry (that I didn’t back up my files). I trust Google to keep my data safe (after all, organising your data is what Google is all about). I may be wrong but I figure my data has a much better chance of remaining safe and intact in Google’s tender care than in my own.
So what about those famed web apps in the cloud?
It strikes me that users coming from smartphone to Chomebook are going to experience a far smoother transition than those coming from Mac or PC. Web apps are usually limited-scope, free or inexpensive, focused applications. Like smartphone apps, they tend to do one thing and do it well.
Like most conputer users I have one or two applications that are ‘must haves’ and for that reason would have kept me on my Mac in the past. One is music (no longer a problem with Spotify now available as a Web app - who needs iTunes?) and the second is a picture editor. As with Android you just go to the Google app store and download your required app - most are free. In this case there is a clever picture editing app called iPiccyPhoto, which works a treat online - slicker dare I say, than Gimp which I was using on the Mac before.
So far then, there is nothing I haven’t been able to do on the Chromebook that I could do on my Mac. What will the next fortnight bring?