Friday, March 3, 2017

On Chromebooks - First Week

I simply cannot bring myself to talk about Chromebooks without first talking about Android. The two are tied together for me in ways I must explain before I feel like Chromebooks make any sense at all.

I dove into Android because it was free and open source. At the time, Microsoft was doing or threatening to do all manner of things with Windows that I found distasteful. I didn't have any sort of foundation for understanding an operating system as a service offering, which is what Microsoft would eventually move toward. I thought of things solely as possessions. When I purchase Windows, I expect to own Windows with no further obligations to the people who programmed it. I still hold to this thinking as a default setting, but as time has passed I've come to understand how and why companies are moving away from this form of thinking. Yes, I agree most of the motivation behind this is greed. However, some of the motivation is also, I think, longevity. Companies and corporations are becoming transient things in our culture. We've removed loyalty both from employee to employer and from employer to employee. It's been replaced in most instances with loyalty from customer to company, but not necessarily from company to customer. Generally speaking, I think there is more wrong with this generation's corporate culture than there is right. My point is not to enter a discussion about these things, though. My point is to describe my motivations for approaching Android when I did.

I was uncomfortable with the rumors of Windows 7 becoming more closely controlled by Microsoft and more dependent upon them as a company. I was uncomfortable with the idea of relying on this company. I wanted to buy an operating system that would just work for years to come. Sadly, this isn't possible any more. While I was fearful of what Microsoft might take from me in their bid to increase profits at my expense, I failed to consider what black hats were going to be taking from me for the sake of their own profit and amusement. The world where purchasing an operating system could be a one-time interaction has passed away. Constant interference from malicious actors now necessitates constant reliance on the developers of the software we use. My mind is even devious to imagine some of this problem might have been manufactured by companies like Microsoft themselves. Whatever the case may be, while I didn't wish to accept a relationship with Microsoft for access to the service now known as Windows, I eventually accepted it for assurances of increased security and the possibility of avoiding eventual identity theft (my identity has been stolen regardless).

In my reluctance to embrace this brave new future, I began searching for an alternative to windows as a platform for my computing needs. There were really only three alternatives I knew of to consider: Apple's OS, Linux and Android. 

Linux, on the other hand, was and is a world of promise. It is free, stable and fast. It also takes some fair amount of time and effort to use. It was an is an ideal solution, but some experiences I had with LiteStep, a windows explorer modification became a motivation to avoid it. I found I truly valued a user interface which worked without too much effort on my part. I don't know enough about Linux to say definitively that it does not offer this, but my suspicions of it were high enough to redirect my interest.

Into this line of thinking entered Android, a Linux variant developed by Google, which was already a company I appreciated. I appreciated Google because I saw them as a company providing services to me for free. I didn't understand how Google could do this, but I was in favor of it. They gave me the best email experience for free. They gave me Google drive for free. They gave me Google maps for free. They gave me Google documents for free. They gave me Google wave for free (wave is now dead, but largely integrated into Google documents). These are only a few of the things Google hands out in exchange for a simple account with them. I was ecstatic and I ate it all up. Google quickly developed a lot of brand loyalty with me. So when Android came on the scene and offered me an experience like Apple's iOS and Microsoft's WindowsPhone except possibly better and apparently free, I ate that up too. My desire was to have a smartphone running Android and leverage this experience to determine whether Android could possibly become the Windows replacement I was still looking for.

By the time I realized that Google's business model was to collect all of my data and profit off it, I was far too invested in their ecosystem to ever consider abandoning it outside of data paranoia, which I am not afflicted with. I've come to terms with the cost of their service and am willing to accept it. I also have discovered that Android is capable of suiting many of my computing needs, but not all of them. There are two main areas that Android falls short of my expectations: 1) League of Legends (and, to a lesser extent, Steam) and 2) Microsoft Office. It is possible this may seem indicative of a relatively shallow computing experience, and that assessment is correct of some periods of my interaction, but not all. My computing needs encompass image, audio and video editing at different moments in my life. However, these needs can be and are largely met by the capabilities of Android. Well, image and audio editing are. Video editing is not really something I've tried to do on this platform. However, I've also lost my way in terms of video editing. I have no confidence in my capability or vision, so it isn't an interest I pursue any longer. 

As for the first shortcoming, there isn't really any solution. For general gaming interests, Android provides a compelling set of its own offerings that I've been known to partake. Even so, specific games I value on the Windows platform are simply not offered by alternative services. As a result, I've resigned myself to maintaining at least one Windows computer as a full-time resource for these interests.

For the second shortcoming, I am investigating alternative solutions. I know most people would be quick to talk about Google's office suite or Open Office as solutions to the problem. They are not. Speaking of Microsoft's Office suite, I am referencing, specifically, VBA and the easily accessible database front-end of Microsoft Access. I think I can supplement these things if I learn the right resources, but I haven't gotten there yet. Right now, I can accomplish amazing things with Microsoft Excel and Access, so I will continue my reliance on Windows accordingly. In the future, I think moving these skills toward PHP and SQL will be the solution to this dependency. This is more of a long-term solution, though.

Finding Android to be such a capable solution, I've invested as mentioned previously. I have purchased Android applications and games and familiarized myself with the ins and outs of the system. If I had to abandon Windows tomorrow, I don't think I would be crippled. It would still be an adjustment, but the adjustment is not opaque to me any longer. I have a good idea of what I would be living without. I am, in that way, ready to become even more reliant on Android as my primary computing foundation. 

This is where Chromebooks enter the equation for me. Although ChromeOS is not Android, the truth is it actually is Android. They are slightly different versions of the same thing built from Linux. That's not really why I say they are practically the same thing. I say it because Google wants its users to think of them that way. They haven't really pushed this very forcefully yet, but adding Android apps to Chromebooks is a big and telling step in that direction. Google doesn't appear to want these two ecosystems fragmented any longer and I am in favor of this type of thinking. There is also a substantial amount of evidence supporting something currently being called Andromeda. Google is actively working on the codebase for a project which appears to be all about combining ChromeOS and Android into a single operating system capable of running anything from either on any available hardware, seamlessly. That's an ambitious goal, but nothing too far removed from the activities of their competitors (Microsoft's continuum project comes to mind).

In light of these things, I've migrated my own desire for a new Android tablet to a desire for a Chromebook. I've had and interacted with a few Android tablets. The main Android tablet experience I enjoyed was with the Android Transformer Prime of yesteryear. It is a painfully slow device by today's standards, but one I used to validate my suspicions that Android could be used for serious writing pursuits. My second book was written almost entirely on the Asus Transformer Prime after I moved from Open Office to Google Documents as my primary writing application. One trepidation I have had about upgrading this old reliable tablet to a newer model is the platform's focus on consumption rather than creation. Yes, I have confirmed the platform can be used for content creation, but it is truly focused on facilitating consumption. I don't dislike this aspect of it, I am just observing it. As a result, I found myself spending far more time reading, watching movies and playing games on my tablet than on focused writing. Moving to a newer version really only provides benefit in terms of the content consumption side of the experience. The old tablet is still equivalently capable in terms of writing and there is really no need to upgrade it for this. 

In some moments, I even think it better to keep the old tablet as games outstrip its capabilities. Now that it can no longer really be used for consumption, it is even more ideally suited to my real purpose for the device. At least the only real purpose I am willing to admit. So, I've not updated my tablet for years. (There is also the fact that new tablets are expensive). 

Chromebooks, on the other hand, are built from the ground up for writing. Their development has resulted in an even more limited environment than the Android tablet I'd become used to. There is a good argument there for a reasonable update to my writing experience. Yet, I didn't want to invest just for the writing experience. I know I often claim such, but I strongly felt the ChromeOS environment too limited for serious consideration. I felt that way, that is, until Google announced Android app integration last year. Once that direction became official, I was all-in on my desire to own a Chromebook. At last a device aimed at writing, with a larger and more comfortable keyboard paired with a better screen. This was a real upgrade that I could feel was worth my money.

I would have purchased a Chromebook last year, but there were two limiting factors. First, I don't have the money to simply purchase anything carrying a price tag over $100. These types of purchases require consideration and an accord with my wife. Secondly, I didn't find the 2016 Chromebook offerings compelling. Google worked hard to ensure their new Android app initiative was well supported by the existing hardware, but there is no denying these Chromebooks were not manufactured with the intention of supporting Android apps. I wanted to wait for something that was built with Android integration in mind. 

I found what I was waiting for in the Asus Chromebook Flip C302 and Samsung Chromebook Plus. So, I eagerly awaited these two offerings which, admittedly, carried a much higher price premium when considering their Android focus. In the end, I listened to reviewers who maintained the keyboard on the Asus Chromebook Flip C302 was the far superior experience. I am, ostensibly, purchasing this device for writing. Therefore, it is important to buy into the best writing experience possible. 

Now that I've done so, I'd like to share my experiences with this new ecosystem. I'd like to cover my hopes and expectations along with my disappointments and lessons along the way. This new Chromebook is going to be my primary computing device for the foreseeable future, so I might be able to provide some helpful insights to anyone interested in a similar path.

No comments:

Post a Comment