The Bright Future That Awaits Chrome OS

I will start this post by being transparent:  I am a big fan of Chrome OS.  I more-or-less made the move to Chrome OS about this time last year and frankly, I haven’t looked back.  Yes I still have my corporate laptop that I use on occasion but the reality is, everything I need to do in my work life and my personal life I can do on Chrome.  So with that clear, I still stand by the title of this article:  The future is very bright from Chrome OS.

I believe this for several different reasons and all of them are intertwined to paint this bright future picture.  First is the rapidly maturing Operating System itself.  The Chrome OS of today, Build 53, is far superior in every way to the Chrome OS I started on last year, Chrome 48.  Second, is the era in which we live in.  We are, finally, approaching the post-PC world that Apple and others have been talking about since 2008.  But eight years on, we are actually there or darn close.  Third is adoption of Chrome OS as a platform in businesses and in education, the later of which was dominated by PCs, then by Apple and now nearly by Chrome OS.  Finally, there is the clear direction in which Google and the Chromium team within it are going to take the devices and platform in the future.  The Chromebook I’m tying this article on today (a HP Chromebook 11 G4) will be vastly overshadowed by what a device will look like this time next year or in 2018.  All of these things add up to a future that sees Chrome OS not only as a part of but a dominant player.  And the cool thing is, everyone reading this is on the cusp of it all.  We get to see it all unfold and that, speaking from experience as a Microsoftie during the Windows XP days, is a very cool thing to see.

Chrome OS is Rapidly Maturing in Every Respect

If you look at Chrome OS on the surface, the order of magnitude in maturation over the course of the past 12 months has been nothing short of stunning.  The most obvious of this is the visual look of the User Interface.  Last year and really even the early part of this year, the UI was a but boxy and clunky.  Apps didn’t really seem to fit in and things just didn’t really flow nicely.  Looking at Build 53, this has changed for the better.  With large swaths of Material Design elements throughout the platform, it looks more mature and like a proper Operating System.  In other words, it doesn’t look like an engineering project!  In order for the adoption of Chrome OS to continue, this visual maturity will need to continue and there is no reason to think it won’t do so.  People like pretty things and that is why the Chrome team has to continue to make the OS pretty.

Second, the security of the platform has matured even faster than the UI.  Google has made it clear that security of Chrome OS is a top priority and given their continued push into education and enterprise, it absolutely must remain a top priority.  The last thing that Google as a company needs or Chrome as an OS needs is a major security issue.  So far that hasn’t happened but Google isn’t stopping.  The platform gets updated with significant security patches and updates every month to try to stay a step ahead of the blackhats.  Further, Google has put a $100,000 bounty on anyone

HP Chromebook 13
HP Chromebook 13 running Chrome OS

who can compromise a Chromebook in Guest mode.  To date they have yet to have a successful attempt after two years.  That is how confident they are in the security of the platform but the efforts to make it evermore secure continues as the platform grows.

Finally, there is the soon-to-come Android apps on Chrome OS.  This, in my view, is another sign of maturity.  While many Chrome OS users can do everything they need to do via the Chrome apps and Chrome extensions, there are apps in the Play Store that will make the user experience just that much better.  Having a dedicated app like Google Docs for example where I can simply run an app and not think about extensions will make the user experience that much better.  In my view, this will greatly improve productivity on Chrome devices far beyond the already impressive productivity the platform offers today.

We are in The Post-PC Era

My professional career started in a Windows world where the PC was dominant in every way.  The idea of not having all of my data local, on that PC, was a foreign thought.  We had, after all, gotten rid of mainframes.  Right?  For a long time – over two decades – that was the prevailing thought.  But now, with the maturity of cloud-based storage, Software as a Service (SaaS) and the invasion of mobile devices, the days of a full-bore PC or Mac are numbered.  Don’t get me wrong:  There will always be a need for some local storage.  Every Chromebook as some local storage and that won’t be going away anytime soon.  But the copious amount of storage are long gone.  Because you don’t need it.

Whether it is work (with OneDrive and Office 365) or personal (with Google Drive and Google Apps), my need for having a load of personal storage locally is gone.  Everything is in one of these two clouds.  I can get to it not only from my Chromebook, but from my PC, my Mac, my Nexus 6P and Nexus 9 tablet.  I can get to it anywhere at any time, from an airplane on the lackluster GoGo Inflight network, to my local coffee shop to home sitting on my back deck looking at the Rocky Mountains.

In the strictest since you could make the argument that a Chromebook or a Chromebox is just the next evolution of the PC and, to a degree, you would be right.  But the point here is that you don’t have to have any of these devices, including a Chromebook.  You could, theoretically, strictly go mobile and get just about everything you want done on it.  Your data, after all, is in the cloud(s) that you access with these devices.  But for long periods of time of work, there is few things more uncomfortable than typing on your phone’s display or on a cramped keyboard on your tablet.  That is where a large screen and a full size keyboard is a beautiful thing.  As I write this, I’m using a Dell Multimedia keyboard for Chrome, a Bluetooth mouse from Microsoft and a Dell 24″ monitor that I have connected to my Chromebook.  By this point you have read over 1,000 words in this article and typing that out on a screen or small keyboard isn’t, frankly, an option.

So you have the full size keyboard and monitor connected to your Chromebook but you don’t have all the other things that come along with a PC or a Mac.  Software updates are pushed down to you and are simply installed.  You don’t have to interfere if you don’t want to do so.  Yes I know Windows and MacOS do this too but then we get to the issue of applications.  I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a misbehaving app on those platforms.  In a Chrome OS world that problem is simply gone because you are leveraging the web, SaaS and cloud storage to keep things tidy locally. “Apps” in a Chrome OS world are simply apps that are running data from a cloud service somewhere.  It simplifies your life.

Finally, I appreciate that some professions will always need a PC or Mac for some activities.  Serious photo editing or graphics work is not the strong suit of Chrome OS nor is the hardware powerful enough to deal with it.  I get that but that is a small subset of the overall computing community.  For 90+% of users who are doing document editing, moderate spreadsheet work, simple photo editing and email, a Chromebook solves the problem nicely.  In that sense, we are in the Post-PC era, not the Dead-PC era.  I do not think that PCs or Macs will ever go away and that is certainly not what I’m suggesting.  What I am suggesting is that they will be confined to an ever smaller space in the market as they become more niche, not mainstream.

Chrome OS Adoption in Business and Education is Fueling The Migration

For the first time in a very long time, someone is outselling Apple and MacOS in the education sector.  That was Google and Chrome OS.  For the first time ever, Google’s platform outsold Apple in the education sector.  That was huge news early in 2016 and that trend is continuing.  More and more schools and school districts are moving away from PCs and Macs in favor of Chromebooks for several reasons.  First is cost.  Even with educational discounts, the average Macbook for a student can be between $400-700 depending on the configuration.  Chromebooks however can be as low as $100 and top out at $300.  If a school district is buying thousands of devices, this adds up to huge savings.

Second is the manageability.  Chromebooks are more secure by nature but they equally can be “locked down” so that no other applications or extensions can be added to the device.  This means that students are given a set of applications but they cannot add to it or, more importantly, add games.  I spoke to my nephew who’s school district has moved from Mac to Chromebooks.  He said that is was well known how to get around the security features of a Macbook and load apps and games onto the devices as well as navigate to sites that were supposedly off limits.  He said however that he and his friends have yet to figure out how to get around it on a Chromebook.  He jokingly said he didn’t like Chromebooks for this reason! This control of the environment is critical for schools but it is also critical for enterprises.

Third is simplicity.  Teachers, students and administrators do not have to worry about complicated deployment plans or heavy management that is required for PC or Mac-based schools.  There is no more issues with updating software or figuring out which set of students get which set of applications.  All of this is centrally managed through Google Admin and far less onerous than other solutions.

These same cost savings, management and simplicity are the same reasons that more SMB and small enterprises are moving to Chromebooks over PCs and Macs as well.  Google has worked with their partners to provide a business class of Chromebook with a bit more horsepower but still the same secure Chrome that is manageable and simple to use.  For businesses, like schools, the cost savings can be huge with the average PC corporate user costing $5000 over the course of 3 years.  Chromebooks can be about half of that cost.

The Direction Google is Taking Chrome OS is Making it Future Ready

It is well known, and as I discussed earlier, that Android apps are coming to Chrome OS.  This will be a boom for developers but also for users of the platform.  It will bring a new wave of usability and give users the ability to use an app they are perfectly comfortable using on their phone or tablet to their laptop.  Because of this, Google is starting to gently suggest that their partners who make Chromebooks start adding things that, to this point, have only been in the mobile world.  In an article from Wired, part of the article discussed the documentation Google has around Chrome OS devices and their requirements.  The person in charge of those documents, Alberto Martin Perez of Google, laid out in the article an answer to a key question that the article asked:  What does a laptop look like in the age of mobile?

The answer was crystal clear from Perez.

When Google decided to integrate Android apps with Chrome OS, Perez and his team combed through the documentation. “We wanted to make sure we were ahead,” Perez says. “It’s really easy to change a web app, it’s really hard to change a laptop.” Google now strongly recommends—which is a lightly-veiled warning that it’ll be mandatory soon—that every Chromebook include GPS, NFC, compass, accelerometer, a fingerprint reader, and a barometer. Those are all smartphone parts that have made little sense in a laptop before. But Android apps are inspiring manufacturers to make devices that move, that adapt, that take on different forms in different contexts.

This could be the ultimate expression of the post-PC world:  The merging of what we have commonly considered two distinct product lines and thought.  If Google in the near future starts mandating that the likes of Asus, Acer, HP and other manufactures including what have been mobile-only components, the melding of where one begins and one ends will become blurry fast.  That’s not a bad thing.  Users will feel at home no matter what screen they happen to be viewing at the time.  Their apps will function the same.  They will get the same metadata and meta content thanks to these new sensors.

In my view, this makes Chrome OS all-the-more compelling.  Google clearly is thinking of the longer term with Android and Chrome OS and the rumor mill has been rampant with a merging of these two platforms.  This blurring of what these devices can do, from a sensor and component perspective, is very much a part of this merging and could indeed be the merging that is being rumored.  Google could achieve what the likes of Microsoft and Apple have been trying to do for the last decade:  Make a truly seamless experience regardless of device.  With Android and Chrome OS, they seem well positioned to pull it off.

Conclusion

The growth of Chrome OS over the past six years has been remarkable in many areas.  That growth is poised to continue and with the security, easy-of-use, manageability and cost savings the platform brings, that for many would be compelling enough.  But Google clearly is thinking about the long game.  With Chrome OS now heavily entrenched in the education sector and growing in the private sector, it will continue to push forward as a viable and dare I say dominant platform.  This doesn’t take into consideration the addition of Android apps and additional device sensors that will make using those apps a truly seamless experience regardless of which device you happen to be using at the time.

Chrome OS clearly is a key part of Google’s future but it is also a key part of personal computing’s future.  No longer do we as users keep a shed load of data local.  Its all in cloud services that we access from our devices today.  This is a pillar point of the Post-PC world and unquestionably, Chrome OS is best suited by its very design to take full advantage of it.

All of this adds up to a bright future for Chrome OS.  Grab your Sunnies and jump in.  It is going to be awesome.