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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.