Google's Internet-only PC: the future of computing, or a misfire?

Are you ready for everything including your programs, files, and more to be stored on the Internet instead of your personal computer?

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Are you ready for everything including your programs, files, and more to be stored on the Internet instead of your personal computer?

Google has thrown a bomb into the computing world.

It’s the Google Chromebook, a notebook computer that uses programs live from the Internet — not your hard drive — for you to run your computing world. Turn on your computer: You’re on the web.

Word processing, email, games, books, and streaming media to name a few: All are located on the Internet or, more fashionably, "the cloud" — whether you’re at home, at work or on the road. All your files are stored there.

You can back up your files on your computer — it’s your choice — but if you have the Internet seconds away, anywhere you are, why would you want to?

Conceptually, the idea isn’t new. If you’ve worked at a company where your computer was a “dumb” terminal, with all programs and data stored on a central computer, you understand the metaphor. Even this “new” netbook concept — everything in the cloud — has been in development by Google for a few years.

What’s different this time, however, is the seriousness of the effort, and that Google, one of the Internet zaibatsus, is committed to supporting the idea long-range.

At Google I/O, the annual Google developers conference that concluded May 11 in San Francisco, the event’s second day was dedicated to improvements in Google’s Chrome Internet browser — now used by an estimated 18 percent of all Internet users according to the The New York Times.

Improvements in the browser enable it to do some fun things, such as allowing users to play the ubiquitous “Angry Birds" game directly in the browser, not as a downloaded app. (For those not familiar with Chrome, which is available now as a free download for any computer, the browser has its own dedicated app store similar to Apple’s extension store for its Safari Browser, add-ons for Firefox, and apps for Opera.)

Building on its Chrome browser, Google announced a “computer revolution” with its unveiling of two notebook computers, or Chromebooks, that will rely on the Internet for applications and file storage. One is built by Samsung, the other by Acer; prices will be in the $350-$500 range, and both will offer optional 3G wireless data service in addition to WiFi connections. and Best Buy have been named as dealers for the Chromebooks, with an announced arrival date of June 15. No wireless carriers have formally announced Chromebook affiliations, according to spokesmen for Verizon and AT&T.

Chromebooks will be rented as well as sold: $28 per month for businesses, and $20 for students — both on contracts.

The company sees the subscription model as particularly attractive to businesses. Tech website Engadget’s commentary on the plan is illuminating.

While the bulk of work will be performed when users are on the Internet via WiFi or their cell data plan, Chromebooks will offer some offline versions of applications, including Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar. The Chrome notebooks will also come with goodies such as Netflix and Hulu, and, with the Chrome browser app store, access to a variety of free and paid apps. The computers have small (16GB) SSD drives, but primarily for essentials that need to be stored locally.

Think of your access to the iPad and iTunes store, think of virtually instant startup, and you’re close to understanding how Chromebooks will work.

The big question, of course, is why anyone would be interested in an Internet-only computer when decades of computer education have taught us to preserve, protect, and defend the local nature of our computers with our own copies of software programs and personal data. You also need to buy into the Google universe of applications when you’re working offline. Can Google Docs really cover your needs?

Another concern: Is the Internet really everywhere now, or is that concept still a few years away? If you walk out of your office to another office, notebook computer in hand, are you sure your connectivity will be maintained in the hallway, let alone while traveling on the road?

And what happens if you’ve stored every file “there” and a disaster cuts off your Internet connection? Or an inexplicable event — natural causes or a hacker’s attack — strikes the Internet storage “farm” and wipes out or compromises your data?

Here’s Google’s thinking: Since most people spend most of their computing time attached to the Internet, Internet-based notebook computers are the logical extension. They will boot up almost instantly, update software and back up files automatically, and eliminate the need for antivirus and similar applications.

Google has made a YouTube video to explain why they think you would want a Chromebook. Here’s the link.

There are many questions remaining, to state the obvious, but this new paradigm for notebook computers will not go away anytime soon and will by no means be ignored.


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