This week at the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco- Google has officially unveiled the product that will bring cloud computing to the masses: the Chromebook, a portable computer that runs Chrome OS. Building on the ever-increasing array of rich web applications offered by Google, Chrome OS makes the browser your entire operating system. No desktop, no local file directories, no local applications. Everything is in the cloud, and the Chromebook is simply one (of many ways) to access your data and applications.
Google has partnered with Samsung and Acer to build the first round of hardware, both which currently resemble a large netbook. But the similarities between the Chromebooks and typical laptops and netbooks begin to fade the closer you look. Its not about the hardware anymore- in fact the physical appearance of both of the upcoming Chromebooks is admittedly unexceptional, perhaps even drab. The message is clear- the product is Google’s universe of services and applications, and the hardware is just a means to interact with it. They are not laptops, they are just a portal to access your Google account. The hardware’s role is more about staying out of the way than running the typical laptop feature race we’ve grown accustomed to in the tech world. The technical specifications of the two Chromebooks are somewhat vague and buried rather deeply in the Chromebook website- all an indication of how unimportant Google would like you to consider them.
Google is designing a different way to use a computer, and while the concept of cloud computing isn’t all that new, Google has the gravitas to bring it into the mainstream. Faster data connections and more capable web applications are allowing us to move our work onto the web. Google listened to what people want out of their laptops, and heard a common theme: speed and access to online services. Eight seconds from power on to live web: this is the promise of the Chromebook, and it will only improve in time.
What does this mean for product designers? Well, certainly a good portion of the work we do can happen on the web. Email, office applications, and communication tools are already mature web applications, and can deliver the same convenience and interoperability that other professionals enjoy.
However, like any creative that uses digital tools, we require more specialized applications that have higher-level hardware requirements. Ten years ago, we saw CAD move from expensive workstations to the high-end PC and eventually to the laptop. The hardware investment for 3D design applications is relatively low these days, but you’ll still need a higher-end video card and some generous RAM to work efficiently in 3D. It doesn’t hurt to have things like a Wacom tablet or a 3D motion controller either. The Chromebook isn’t there yet. But it will be. Technologies like WebGL applications like Google SketchUp and frameworks like PythonOCC are maturing rapidly. We are still years away from enterprise- capable CAD in the browser. But it will happen, and it is going to be exciting to watch it unfold.
Certainly another aspect of the Chromebook introduction is worth considering: that data and interaction with that data is a product deserving the same design considerations as a physical product. This seems like common sense when you look at the big picture, but many designers get a kind of tunnel vision focusing intently on their piece of the design process. Industrial design largely focuses on the design of physical products- shapes, forms, buttons, displays, battery doors, etc. However it is worth remembering that there is a greater depth to most tech products than their physical presentation.
It is a reminder to step back and ask what the user really needs to do, and suspend the restrictions of how they’ve been accustomed to doing it in the past. There may very likely be a way to step outside the current paradigm and accomplish the same goal by another path. That’s my biggest takeaway from the Chromebook introduction.