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Life With A Chromebook: The Verdict March 7, 2014

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

My Chromebook experiment is now in its fourth week.  A month of dedicated use is plenty of time to get a real feel for how this thing works, day in and day out.  What worked well and what didn’t?  Read on…

What Works

There is a lot to make you happy with a Chromebook.  Here’s what I found pleasing about my experience:

Fast startup For those who come to the Chromebook from the world of laggy, draggy Windows PCs, the response and speed of the device is delightful.  My Chromebook cold-boots in eight seconds or so.  That’s right, from the time you press the power button until you are logging in: eight seconds.  If you just put the device to sleep by closing the lid, it takes two seconds to restore from hibernation.  That typically means that the device is ready to go before you get the lid positioned at the right angle for typing.

Such responsiveness changes the way you use the device.  You can easily open the lid, type a quick note, and close the lid in just a few seconds.  Chromebooks offer the responsiveness of a tablet with the greater usability of a standard laptop.

For my particular unit, the slowest feature was the cellular radio.  It often took twenty to thirty seconds to get connected to the internet via cellular and I blame this more on the local reception than the Chromebook itself.  Oddly, this delay became agonizing.  As with all things on the internet, speed and responsiveness are relative.

Solid software Chrome OS just runs.  No patches, updates, drivers, or fixes.  My Chromebook updated twice last month: once when I first got it and again last week when Google pushed out an update.  The update downloaded unbeknownst to me, and then the Chromebook reminded that I needed to reboot to install it.  The reboot took ten seconds, and I had the latest update installed and running.  Chrome updates are even easier and faster than phone OS updates.

Chrome is, well, Chrome.  If you use Chrome on your existing laptop, you’ll be instantly at home on a Chromebook.  If not, you’ll need to adjust a bit to the browser and then you are good to go.  The idea that everything runs in a browser–and that “apps” are little more than glorified bookmarks–takes a bit of acclimatization.  But after a few days, the Chromebook seems like a perfectly natural way to get your work done.

Google Drive Google Drive forms the core file store for your Chromebook and works reasonably well.  It feels as if everything in Drive is right there on your Chromebook and the Chrome OS file browser is somewhat simple but very usable.

Existing cloud tools If you already use lots of cloud tools (I use tools like Evernote, Mint, Feedly, Pocket, and others) you’ll find them identically useful on your Chromebook.  Almost all Chrome plugins and extensions work the same as well.  In fact, the more cloud-based tools you adopt, the easier your transition to a Chromebook will be.

Third party hardware This one really surprised me.  Every peripheral I attached to my Chromebook worked perfectly.  USB drives showed up without a hitch, as did USB keyboards and mice.  Bluetooth keyboards and mice worked flawlessly as well, which was nice.  External monitors connected via HDMI seamlessly extended my desktop without a driver or a setting change, and the Chromebook even rerouted audio through the HDMI connection to play through my monitor speakers. The topper: a Logitech HD webcam worked the first time, integrating directly with the built-in Camera app.

In short, the Chromebook handles external hardware exactly as you would expect it to, without any further interaction after you plug it in.  What a pleasant surprise!

What Doesn’t

It’s not all unicorns and rainbows with a Chromebook, however.  There are still some rough patches that may be painful enough to keep you from using a Chromebook on a regular basis:

Heavy duty Office usage Microsoft’s web versions of Office tools work reasonable well to render documents, but they are horrible at creating any sort of content beyond plain text or simple spreadsheets.  (I couldn’t even get indented bullet lists to work in PowerPoint).  If you need to create lots of documents, you will slowly go insane with a Chromebook.  Even if you set up a remote desktop to serve as a Windows proxy, it is tedious and painful to use on a regular basis.

Native Windows apps At least Office has a web version.  Any other native app you use on your current laptop just isn’t going to run on a Chromebook.  Again, you can run it on a remote Windows PC and connect from your Chromebook as needed, but that gets old fast.  Until your native apps migrate to a reasonable web alternative, you could be stuck on your existing machine.

Printing Google has gone to great lengths to provide the Google Cloud Print service.  When it is available, it works well and reliably.  But it only works if you have access to a Cloud Print enabled printer or if you are printing to a printer attached to a always-on PC that is running the Cloud Print service.  In short, you have to run a personal print server to gain access to your existing printers.  That’s not something that average person has the ability or resources to do, and it makes printing a real issue with Chromebooks.

Other cloud storage As much as Google Drive integrates tightly with a Chromebook, other cloud storage options do not.  Every usage requires three steps: moving the file from the cloud to the Chromebook, using the file in some fashion, and then uploading the file back to the cloud.  Google, of course, would prefer that you stick with Google Drive, but for those of us with commitments to other cloud storage, this is a real pain.

The Verdict

After a month, where do I stand?  Although there are drawbacks that occasionally annoy me, my overall experience with my Chromebook is so positive that I am sticking with it as my daily, full-time computer.  I have my old laptop running under my desk, ready for the occasional remote connection for some crucial service the Chromebook can’t provide.  That only occurs once or twice a week, so I am happy to put up with that minor inconvenience.

That’s my personal perspective.  My original experiment was intended to see if the Chromebook was ready for general enterprise deployment.  The answer to that is “no.”  As much as I think some people could live with a Chromebook in its current form, most average enterprise users do not have the acumen or patience to adopt a Chromebook as their full-time machine.  A large-scale rollout will have to wait.

Nonetheless, I think many people would enjoy a Chromebook, especially as a cheap, portable adjunct to their “normal” computer.  You may find that a gradual transition works best, slowly using a Chromebook more and more and returning to your old laptop less and less.  All the negatives with a Chromebook will get fixed over time, I’m sure, and you’ll be way ahead of the curve in adopting the new technology.  If you have tried a Chromebook, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions!

A GREAT Idea January 20, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.

As some of you may be aware, a company has recently announced the invention of a new punctuation mark that can be used to indicate sarcasm.  The so-called “sarcmark” is intended to clearly denote sarcastic comments, much as question marks and exclamation points confirm that a statement is actually a question or an exhortation.

Like me, your first reaction is probably one of extraordinary relief, with the burden of missed sarcasm forever removed from your written communication.  How did we ever get along without a sarcmark before?

My second reaction is to presume that the creators of the sarcmark are simply engaging in a little viral marketing.  Although the mainstream media is treating this as a real news story (surprise!), the entire concept is outlandish and impractical.  That said, they are selling software that allows your PC to create and display sarcmarks, so there is a bit of entrepreneurialism in there as well.

It goes without saying that the sarcmark is doomed to fail.  Not because it is a silly idea (it is) but because it is going up against too much legacy technology to ever succeed.  From that perspective, the sarcmark does provide a useful lesson.

Modern punctuation was pretty much settled a few hundred years ago.  There isn’t a lot of space (or demand) for innovation in this arena.  Nonetheless, if we were all still writing everything by hand, you might be able to create a new punctuation mark and get some people to start using it.

Unfortunately, we produce most of our written content by machine.  Those machines use standardized encodings for characters and standardized fonts for presentation.  The idea that you could revise a standard like ASCII or Unicode to include a new symbol, let alone update a substantial portion of the thousands of fonts used worldwide, is ludicrous.  The combined inertia of these systems overwhelms a tiny effort like the sarcmark.

As agents of change, IT leaders must carefully assess and understand the inertia that threatens every initiative we undertake.  Is the inertia overwhelming?  Will it crush our efforts?  Is there enough value to overcome the challenge?  With careful consideration, we can choose our battles wisely.

More importantly, is there a better solution that simply circumvents all that inertia?  The best innovation occurs when a completely new path is developed, one that bypasses all the problems at hand.  People are far more open to solutions that relieve them of the burden of difficult change and allow them to easily adopt new things.

In the realm of symbols, emoticons have succeeded in creating new symbols by easily combining existing glyphs into new patterns.  No one tried to create a new symbol for “smiling;” they created the sequence “:-)” instead.  By stepping around the inertia of character sets and keyboards and fonts, people developed a whole family of new “symbols” that expanded the meaning that could be inserted into a message.

As we tackle problems, we need to find more solutions that build on existing successful tools and avoid those that creation unwarranted, expensive disruption.  At the very least, we stand a better chance of hearing “Nice job!” without needing a sarcmark.

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Got A Marker? January 15, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

I’ve got a small confession to make. I am addicted to whiteboards.  Not whiteboard markers, mind you, although the odor can be intoxicating.  I mean whiteboards.

In meetings, I can hardly stand to not draw on the board.  If something is worth talking about, it certainly warrants a diagram or two. I am a big believer in “boxes and lines” diagrams.  If any two entities have a relationship, you can create a boxes-and-lines diagram to help express it better. Charts, trees, lists, timelines, you name it: I’d prefer to draw it out.

I’ve noticed that some people share my compulsion and others seem to have no need to leap up and draw things.  My need is so great that it was a running joke among some co-workers as to how long I could hold out before jumping to the board. How could anyone live without a whiteboard handy?

Obviously, some people are wired for visual communication and others are not.  Some people can read volumes of information and internalize it without the need for pictures.  My brain is not so gifted; I need to explicitly render the relationship to fully understand it.  I also like to color-code elements if possible, to further elaborate on important aspects of the diagram.

This affection is so bad that when I do not have a whiteboard handy, I am almost at a loss for words. Almost.  In a pinch, I’ll sketch on a sheet of paper or a napkin, but it’s not quite the same as a full whiteboard. As much as I love words, they seem incomplete without a diagram.

Don’t get the idea that I’m any sort of artist.  When I say “boxes and lines,” I mean boxes and lines and not much more.  I once even took a course on how to doodle, learning how to create little people and other elements of quick sketches.  It helped a bit, but you won’t find any of my work hanging anywhere anytime soon.

This deep desire leads to one of my fondest dreams: a world where everything is made of whiteboard material.  Imagine being able to draw on the walls and doors and tables!  A quick sketch on the dashboard of your car (while safely parked, of course) would be a wonderful thing.  Jotting a note or two in an elevator or on a credenza might be just the thing to get your idea across in a pinch.

Sadly, as you move up the management ladder, the whiteboards diminish.  Cubicle farms and team meeting rooms seem to be covered with whiteboards; management offices tend to have fewer, smaller whiteboards, often hidden behind a wooden panel or a projection screen.  People at every level need to draw; why can’t we have whiteboards everywhere?

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Losing Words January 13, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.

In their 1972 hit Sylvia’s Mother, pop group Dr. Hook tells the story of a jilted lover trying to reach his ex-girlfriend, only to be stopped by her mother.  As he pleads his case on the phone, the memorable hook of the song tells how the operator kept breaking in, demanding “forty cents more, for the next three minutes.”

As I listened to this song recently, it occurred to me that a younger audience might be puzzled by these unusual lyrics.  What is an “operator?” Why would they be demanding money?  Forty cents for three minutes? How would you pay them? Technology has marched on, leaving language (and old pop hits) behind.

The operator, of course, was a human who helped complete calls.  Before cell phones, people used pay phones to make calls away from home, ponying up spare change to stay on the line.  While the first three minutes might run you a dime (and later, a quarter), subsequent blocks of three minutes could cost a lot more.  To stay on the line, you fed change into the phone.

To the modern ear, this sounds no different from instructions on how to tan your own leather or fashion a thatch roof.  The concepts are so foreign that the words barely make sense.  Yet this song describes things that were commonplace just thirty years ago!

Much of our language is derived from current technology, forming a common cultural base. As the rate of technological change increases, language cannot keep up, stranding all sorts of shared phrases.  While amusing, I think it also creates an ever-wider disconnect between generations, making communication more difficult.

Even in the past ten years, many ideas have simply disappeared.  Back last century, people needed to rewind things.  Now, no modern device requires rewinding.  We’re at the point where nothing spins to make music; how would a 50s DJ describe his world if unable to “spin stacks of wax?” People will soon wonder why we “dial” phones.  I suspect that the number of US citizens that have actually operated a dial telephone is rapidly declining.

In a similar fashion, acronyms continue to shrink, encoding more information in shorter sounds.  During World War II, acronyms started out as concatenated syllables from related words, pronounced as a single word.  “CINCPAC” is the Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific, “CONUS” is the Continental US, and so forth.

By the 1960s, acronyms became individual letters strung together to make words (NASA, ASCII, etc).  This happy state has existed for a while, and no product or process worth its salt is without a clever acronym that forms a related word.

Now we’ve started pronouncing the acronyms for shorthand abbreviations, creating new words. I’ve actually heard people say “lol” and “brb” in running conversation, without a hint of sarcasm.  This is different from traditional acronyms, which typically represent nouns.  Now we are collapsing and pronouncing verb phrases and even whole short sentences.  This cannot be good for general communication.

What to do? Not much, I’m afraid. In between more-frequent trips to Urban Dictionary, I’ll go back to listening to Dr. Hook. They had another hit song that involved getting their picture on the cover of a magazine.  As I understand it, a “magazine” is like an entire web site, printed and bound as a sequence of “pages.”  The “cover” is the first page, and often had a photo on it.  Imagine!

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Being Remembered January 4, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

During lunch with a friend last month, she noted that everyone dies two deaths.  Intrigued, I asked her to explain.  The first, she noted, was the physical death that we will all encounter.  The second, however, occurs the last time your name is spoken.  After that point, you are truly dead and forgotten.

What a concept! It immediately brings to mind those timeless names that will never die, those rare few that have had an eternal impact on our lives and society.  But it also leads us to reflect on the billions whose names have slipped into obscurity, and whose impact, however large or small, has stopped reverberating in this world.

This idea was brought into sharper focus for me last week when I learned of the death of Tim Hartselle, with whom I worked many years ago.  I’ve written before about Tim here, but did not mention him by name.  Tim once worked for me as a Unix administrator.  He wasn’t very good at Unix but found great success in email administration.  I often tell Tim’s story as an example of how seemingly difficult circumstances (losing his dream job of being a Unix admin) can lead to unexpected success in ways you never imagined.

Tim was a great, gentle man, with a ready smile and a sincere heart.  His first death came at 47, way too early.  So I mention his name here to do my part in forestalling his second passing.  If you ever need a story that demonstrates success borne of adversity, you may wish to use Tim’s name as well, extending that second demise.

It may seem odd to start a new year on such a somber note, but I prefer to see the opportunity that is presented.  With a fresh year spread before us, what will you do to make your name memorable?  I’m not thinking of notorious fame, either criminal or celebrity, but the kind of fame borne of doing good things on a continuous basis.

Most of us start the year pledging to lose weight, exercise more, and to cultivate more good habits than bad.  Most of those resolutions fall by the wayside, even with the best of intentions.  This year, take a different tack.  Resolve to do things this year in such a way that your name will be remembered, long after you are gone. Being remembered, in a good way, may yield a better year than any other resolution you can make.

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