ChromeOS

I was an early user of ChromeOS. Not as early as David Ruddock, who has written a post on how Google’s flagship desktop operating system has stalled, but as soon as the first commercially available Chromebook was out. I was in. Since then I’ve always had a Chromebook in my life, and usually it’s been a pretty high-end one. Sometimes, as was the case with the Pixelbook, they have spent quite a chunk of time as my main or even only laptop.

I’m pretty sure that I made a similar argument to David’s a few years ago. When rumours that ChromeOS and Android were going to merge, or that Android apps would come to ChromeOS, I was not only sceptical, but actually antagonistic towards the idea. Android apps would mean less focus on web apps, and that means less focus on what ChromeOS is really, really good at: the web.

I think, though, that David’s piece doesn’t really focus on what Google was trying to achieve with ChromeOS and so he misses the mark. To understand that, you need to look at what people actually use computers for now.

First of all, it’s important to split how people use laptops between work and home. David says:

“I say this even as one of the few people who can do 95% of my job on a Chromebook: that 5%, when you really, really need it, is more than enough reason to avoid a platform entirely. And for many others, it’s much more than 5%: it’s their entire workflow.”

Actually, probably 90% of workers who use a laptop can do their jobs on a Chromebook. If your life revolves around office applications – and that’s most people who use a computer for work – then web apps are not only fine, in many cases they are the only option on a laptop. The Microsoft Office suite is a first-class citizen on the web, and some of Microsoft’s PWA’s are excellent. I’ve known Office 365 deployments where people don’t even bother to have the desktop apps installed. Salesforce… does it even have a Windows or Mac desktop version? It’s all about the web.

In that environment, ChromeOS is fine – and it has been for years.

Of course, there are plenty of people, typically in the creative industries, who require applications that either don’t exist on the web or where the web apps just aren’t good enough. Because journalists work in this area they often think everyone does.

But as Benedict Evans has repeatedly pointed out, there are seven million Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers out of the 1.5bn PCs in the world. That’s less than 0.5% of all computer users. Adobe isn’t the be-all and end-all of creative software or of software you can’t do with web apps, but even being generous it’s hard to make the case that the total number of PC users who can’t live in a world of web apps gets to more than between 2-5% of users.

Home users are a little different. Yes, there are home users who fall into that nebulous category of “prosumer” – the kind of people who do “proper” photography or video editing, and want/need Photoshop or Premiere/Final Cut to do that. But again, they’re rare. The majority of the world’s photographs and videos are created, edited, published and viewed on smartphones, never touching a PC at all.

The one thing that lots of home users do with laptops which Chromebooks struggle with is games, and even here the majority of casual gaming is phone based. This is where having Android app support for ChromeOS makes sense: being able to play the huge range of casual and less casual mobile games on a ChromeOS laptop would be awesome. Sadly though – and this is where David’s piece is correct – to do it properly you need the developers to have optimised for larger screens, and to put it bluntly most simply haven’t bothered.

Remember I said that for web apps, “ChromeOS is fine – and has been for years”. That’s actually Google’s biggest challenge. In the space of nine years, ChromeOS has run slap into the same challenge that it took Windows and MacOS three decades to get to: there really aren’t a lot of improvements to make. Of course, ChromeOS needs to keep pace with web APIs and – in true Google style – push them forward. And there are definitely areas for improvement, like biometric support (as David highlights). You can improve the interface, as all OS’ should.

But what else do you want ChromeOS to do, other than be the best platform for running the web apps which 90% of users care about?

This post was written and posted on an iPad Pro, another device where you can’t do any creative work and that isn’t really suitable for professionals.

You’ve got to know when to fold ’em

Lots to agree with in Owen Williams piece on “Foldable phones: right tech, wrong place?”, starting with this:

If I consider it for a while, the largest advantage would be to merge the tablet category with the phone, but it’s a confusing proposal: do consumers desire a phone and tablet that will require charging even more often? Perhaps foldables are like adding a second monitor to your desktop: useful for power users to get a bit more space, but most people don’t care.

There’s two other problems with foldable phones of the kind we’re seeing at the moment. First, when unfolded they are too wide to thumb type on, but too narrow to have a meaningful keyboard. Second, the most popular size of tablet is around 10-11in: halve that and you have a very wide or very narrow phone, depending on which axis you put the fold.

Foldables actually make more sense applied to larger devices, such as the iPad Pro or something more complex along the lines of the Surface Book. While I never really wished my phone was a tablet, I’ve certainly mulled the idea of a tablet and laptop combined, adaptable to the situation I’m in, without the awkward detached keyboard kicking around somewhere.

Surface Book, for example, could simply be a single ultra-thin device that folds into itself to become a slate, rather than detaching. The lower half, in ‘laptop’ mode could transform into a simple display-based keyboard, and adapt dynamically to the form-factor it finds itself in at any moment.

I’m not sure about this. Part of the advantage of tablet form devices is that you don’t have to have the additional weight and bulk of the keyboard. Surface Book works because if you take off the base, it weighs less than half as much, making it easy to use when held. Surface Pro and iPad Pro work because you can remove the keyboard altogether and still have a usable slate.

In theory I would love an iPad Pro that folded in half to reduce its size. In practice, that would more than double the thickness once you account for the inevitable hinge mechanism. Folding devices are just bulky devices, and who wants that?

Most of the tech news sites are going absolutely crazy over folding devices. I just don’t think they have any kind of use case yet. Perhaps they’ll find one, but I can think of a million technologies in the past which never made it past this stage.