When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) unveiled the new Chromebook at its I/O developer conference in San Francisco, the audience cheered. I know: I was there. The PC is dead! All hail cloud computing! This wasn't Google talking. These were the developer fanboys, and their enthusiasm was genuine.
They've more to cheer today. Samsung has made what appears to be a special effort to meet a backlog of promised Chromebooks due to the 5,000 or so attendees of I/O, and the reviews are starting to pour in -- some good, some not so much. On Google+, several of those I follow complained about the hardware design, and for good reasons.
As intuitive as Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) tries to make its Macs, the Chromebook has an oddly placed search button where the caps lock should be. Clicking to place a cursor in Google Docs is also difficult, while having the "alt" button where Macs and PCs keep the "command" key has taken some getting used to. Yet I find these to be annoyances more than design flaws.
Not so for The New York Times' David Pogue. "Maybe in Silicon Valley, where Google's engineers live, you can live your entire life online. But in the real world, you can use this laptop only where you can find, and afford, Wi-Fi hot spots. Or a Verizon cell signal, if you've bought the $500 Samsung model," Pogue wrote.
Trouble is, he's right. As a consumer laptop, Samsung's Chromebook doesn't do enough well to merit a $500 price tag when Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) , Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , and Toshiba sell fully featured PCs for the same price or less -- although initial sales of the Chromebook proved to be remarkably brisk.
Fortunately, this isn't the aim. Instead, Google wants its Chromebook to become a small-business PC for mobile workforces. They'd rent rather than buy infrastructure, pulling services from the cloud as needed while using cheap, leased 4G hardware and mobile hotspots to get work done. For that type of company and user, Samsung has delivered an excellent machine.
I've been writing for an hour with Meebo and a Google+ hangout active, Facebook working in the background, and a YouTube playlist streaming continuously. Despite all that, and starting with the battery at just 39% full, there is still an 18% charge left. Whatever Samsung did to conserve power in its Chromebook, it did well.
Work remains to be done, of course. Google has to figure out offline access. Commissioning hardware specialists other than Acer and Samsung to get in on the game would also be a good idea. For example, I'd love to see HTC give a try at building a Chromebook, even though smartphones tend to be the company's historical strength.
In the end, I see myself using the Chromebook as my work-away-from-the-office option on trips to Fool HQ, at conferences, and while sitting through my kids' taekwondo and ballet lessons. But that's also because I already use a wide variety of Google services to get work done and never leave home without a portable hotspot. Those who haven't committed to the Big G's cloud software may feel differently. Where do you stand? Use the comments box below to weigh in on the Chromebook and Google's cloud-computing strategy.
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