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Life With A Chromebook: The Reality February 25, 2014

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
Tags: , ,

In the first part of this series, I took at look at the basics of a Chromebook: the hardware, software, and a few first impressions. My initial impression of Chrome OS was nothing short of delightful. It boots fast, works perfectly, runs quickly, and handle all sorts of peripherals with aplomb. In this next installment, we’ll move on to day-to-day life in Chrome OS. Can I get real work done with it?

Where Are My Tools?

We all need certain tools to get our jobs done. For me, these break down into three groups: email, office productivity, and other useful tools.

Let’s start with my most important tool, email. Here’s a simple survey to see if you can access your enterprise email on a Chromebook:

  • Do you use a cloud-based email service, such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or Outlook.com? If so, you’ll find it easy to access and manage your email on a Chromebook. Just log in as you always have. Otherwise…
  • Does your company provision email services through Microsoft’s cloud-based Exchange hosting? If so, you can use the Outlook Web client within a Chrome window to access your email. Otherwise…
  • Does your company host its own Exchange infrastructure and have web accessed enabled? If so, you can use the Outlook Web Access tool provided by your company; consult your IT department for details. Otherwise…
  • Does your company use some other email system with web access? If so, contact IT for for support. Otherwise…
  • You may be out of luck.

In general, you’ll be able to use your email if there is some web-enabled access method for it. I fall into the second category (cloud-based Exchange hosting) and was reading my email in a matter of minutes. Truth be told, the Outlook Web client is nicely done and provides about ninety percent of the functionality of the native app.

Office productivity tools like Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are far more confusing and difficult. The Chromebook purist would have you fully embrace the Google suite and use Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides for your office needs. Given the large number of Office documents that flow through my world (and most enterprises), this just isn’t an option. I need to create, view, edit, and share Microsoft Office documents all day long.

There is no single good, consistent way to deal with Office documents on a Chromebook. When you click on an Office document, you’ll find that it may

  • Download to your local storage, awaiting further interaction from you.
  • Open in Google’s QuickOffice Beta viewer. I’ll use the term “beta” to mean “barely usable:” documents do not render cleanly (especially spreadsheets) and editing is laughably limited and difficult. If you only want to see the literal text within a document, QuickOffice is a passable solution. No CIO desiring to keep their job would ever allow a typical end user to use QuickOffice.
  • Open in the Microsoft Office web previewer. The preview rendering is excellent and very usable. Honestly, it is a testimony to the power of web scripting that it looks as good as it does. Unfortunately, you cannot edit the document in this view.
  • Open in the full web version of Word, Excel, or Powerpoint, with the ability to edit the document. Note that editing is extremely limited and not anywhere close to what you would be able to do using the full native version of the tool.

You get the idea. It would take a week of posts to explain the exact scenarios that result in these results, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for each new Chromebook user to figure out. Suffice to say, you would never release this to a general, non-technical user population. It’s confusing, frustrating, and tedious.

A final alternative for Office documents is to copy them to local storage, open them in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides, and then save them back in Office format. This works for most documents, but is equally tedious and time-consuming.

For any other tool, you’ll need to find an appropriate web version. In my case, this worked out fairly well: most of what I use besides Office is cloud-based anyway. Tools like Evernote, Feedly, and Pocket work beautifully in Chrome, and all of our enterprise platforms (HR, sales automation, expense management, etc) are web-enabled by default. Those tools just worked with no additional effort on my part.

If you use some other native Windows app without a direct web equivalent, you’ll have to find and switch to an alternative. For me, that meant switching from Quicken on my PC to using Mint.com in the cloud, which was a welcome change. If there is no web equivalent, you may have no choice but to turn to some remote desktop or VDI solution. That’s worth a post in itself, coming soon.

Where Are My Files?

So much for your tools. What about your files?

Chromebooks use a combination of Google Drive and local storage to present a single unified file system to the user. You can also plug in USB drives, which become part of that file system. It is easy to copy files to the local storage (my Chromebook has 16GB available) and to move things between local storage and my Google Drive.

The pre-eminence of Google Drive is important. When Chrome OS wants to access a file in some way, it can natively access files stored in Google Drive, local storage, and USB drives with no further intervention from the user. Similarly, files can be saved to Google Drive quickly and easily. It works just like you would expect it to work.

All other cloud-based file systems exist at a distinct disadvantage to Google Drive. If you keep your files in something like Microsoft’s OneDrive, or Box, or Dropbox, every file access is a two-step process: you first move the file to local storage, and then access it within Chrome OS. Saving is two steps: save to local storage, and then upload to the cloud storage provider. It’s tedious, annoying, and a bother. You wind up with lots of temporary files cluttering your local storage.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to link your Chromebook to all sorts of cloud storage providers and use them all equally. In the real world, Google has absolutely no incentive to do this. The goal is to get users to shift to Google Drive, not make other platforms easier to use. Similarly, Microsoft has no incentive to make Drive work more smoothly with a Surface tablet. We’re carving up market share here, not promoting world peace. Capitalism is messy at times.

It’s conceivable that we could someday see smoother access to non-Google storage on a Chromebook, making this less of an issue. In the interim, inconsistent access to files is going to be an issue for users with things stored outside of Google Drive.

What about your files stored on some old-school hard drive spinning somewhere? From the Chromebook’s perspective, they may as well be stored on punched paper tape or Edison wax cylinders. To use them, you’ll need to move them to either Google Drive (best choice), another cloud storage provider (adequate but annoying), or a USB drive that you plug into your Chromebook (workable but risky).

What Now?

As much as my first impressions were wonderfully positive, some of the realities of the Chromebook as an enterprise device are more disappointing. As you may have deduced, some people are well-suited to a Chromebook, while others are not so well-positioned. What about you? In my next post, we’ll look at some key indicators to see if you, and your enterprise, are ready for Chromebooks.


1. Saqib Ali - February 26, 2014

Greetings Chuck,

I agree. ChromeOS users will not have a good experience when dealing with MS Office documents. But this is something Microsoft and Google can address. Microsoft needs to do two things:
1) Publish Office Web Apps (Office Online) as a Drive connected app in the Chrome Web Store. Google provide APIs for this, and integration is pretty simple;
2) Make the Office Web Apps storage available as a container on ChromeOS. Again Google provides APIs for this.

I contacted Microsoft about this, but I don’t think they are seeing enough demand for this. If executives, like yourself, talk to Microsoft executives directly, I think we can make this happen. CIOs need to gang up on this 🙂

Thanks! 🙂

Chuck Musciano - February 28, 2014


As I noted in the article, Microsoft has little (or no) incentive to do either of these. It draws users away from a profitable business to a lower-priced alternative that fractures their ecosystem. I agree with you that I would love to see either of these come to fruition, but will be astounded if Microsoft would do so.

Microsoft would prefer that you buy a Surface tablet instead of a Chromebook. All things considered, that isn’t a bad choice: run Chrome as the browser within a Surface tablet. You get the best browser, the best office suite, and decent hardware, at the price of using Windows 8. For most people, that’s too high a price to pay.


Saqib Ali - February 28, 2014

Hi Chuck,

I agree. Microsoft would like to see everyone use a Windows 8 Surface instead of ChromeOS. However the reality is that there is a lot more ChromeOS users in the ecosystem than Surface users. A lot more. And many of these ChromeOS users would like to easily interface with the MS Web Office on their Chromebooks. So Microsoft is just losing good revenue by not integrating their Web Office with ChromeOS.


2. Peter Locke - November 30, 2014

So, if you’re using Linux OS and Ubuntu, does it have a place in this universe?

3. Scott - March 10, 2015

I am a corporate user of the Chromebook and I think the comments here are a lack of doing some real homework.

Office is not an issue. Our organization uses Office 365 and I am able to do Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook all via the web browser. I also will use Google Apps when on the road and for working offline.

If I need to have the native app, I remote into a Virtual Desktop that resides on my servers.

Here is the thing….Microsoft Office is the software of the 80’s generation and the only thing keeping this suite afloat is Excel. If you are having issues due to the lack of an offline version of office, then I would say your are being petty.

The Chromebooks are more secure in that they keep your corporate data safe by working on them in the cloud or RDP. They also can be remotely wiped out if stolen, which the system cannot be recovered.

The Chromebooks can work, it is just not perfect. For me, 99% of what I do is in the cloud and I have no issues.

Saqib Ali - March 11, 2015


How does the browser only version of the Office 365 Excel behave with very large datasets?


Chuck Musciano - March 11, 2015


Over time, the ability to use Office apps in a browser is getting better, which means that a larger user community could use a Chromebook reliably. As Saqib points out, the online versions are simply not suitable for complex spreadsheets with large data sets.

The problem is that you need a solution that accommodates everyone, especially those who are not savvy enough to manage multiple cloud environments or take advantage of VDI infrastructure. I’ll go out on a limb here and conjecture that you are above average in our ability to manage these technologies. For most companies, that level of expertise is not pervasive enough to justify switching to a broad Chromebook deployment.

All that said, I still use my Chromebook every day as my preferred device. The role for Chromebooks continues to expand and will grow as Microsoft further embraces first-class cloud versions of their Office services.


4. Dave - January 17, 2016

Old post, but curious if you still think Mint.com is an acceptable replacement for Quicken? Mint in the past seemed like a decent register, but pales in comparison to Quicken as an app for things like budgeting, forecasting, and reporting.

Chuck Musciano - January 19, 2016

Although Mint has far fewer features than Quicken, it has all the features I need and I have been using it successfully for two years now. The biggest gap for Mint is that it has no reconciliation feature, so you have to fake that with tags to mark cleared items in your checking account. I contacted Mint about this, and they have no intention of adding reconciliation to Mint. Amusingly, when I mentioned this to my 20-something kids (who are both very fiscally responsible) they asked “what’s reconciliation?” They see no need for it, and Mint is clearly targeting a different demographic than the one I occupy.

5. saving relationships - August 21, 2022

saving relationships

Life With A Chromebook: The Reality | The Effective CIO

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