Google Chromebooks and Corporate Computing

Google is launching the Chromebook, and making the profit savvy move of marketing it as a tool for education. I’m not sure if the conjoining of business and education within the initial marketing splash says more about the currently depressing state of American educational discourse or about what Google misunderstands about education. However, tapping into taxpayer cash is always a good decision for the bottom line, and that’s what Google is doing. Even though the Chromebook is slightly more expensive than a comparable netbook, a higher price that includes the Chromebook’s reduced functionality, educators are already piloting Chromebooks for free, saying good things about how quickly they turn on, and loving the new administrator panel that allows for easy web filtering. The rush to love is on. Of course, educators are also loving the low, low price!

But, let’s slow down for a minute. What bothers me the most about the rush to support a device that doesn’t even hit the market for another few weeks is that the Chromebook locks in corporate control with even more finality than Windows or Apple’s fierce-cat entitled operating systems. To be sure, Chrome offers many apps that are open source and free and offers the capability of user-designed apps with much greater ease than writing Windows or Mac software, but the platform is more narrow than what we’ve come to expect from a PC because it’s locked into an internet and cloud-centric system. Creating images and sound in Aviary’s Chrome app, even if offline for storage in the cloud later, is still working in a browser. Browsers browse, they troll for goodies and suck our time in StumbleUpon. Google is an internet company, and so their new OS vision reflects their vision, which is the primacy of the old web. Google Buzz didn’t generate much web 2.0 action, and the Wave has crashed. So why go forward into tomorrow with 1999’s, or even today’s coolest search engine? The answer seems to be because it’s better than 1981’s QDOS. But, is this not a false dichotomy for no other reason than Apple exists?

What about Linux? Can we take what makes us excited about app development and give it teeth through basing the development of creative and educational software on open source platforms? I think about the apps I love on Chrome, and I wonder if they will stay free, if they will begin to include ads, which would be an OS-based ad pipeline to students using Chromebooks, or if they will start to charge a little, and incrementally the bargain-that-was will become death by a million cuts. It’s unclear, and this would be worth nailing down before committing an organization to the Chrome path. I’ve written before about path dependence and the arguments I’m hearing for Chromebooks sound like arguments against the Windows path, which I sympathize with. But, it’s not a very convincing argument. I’m ready to have an argument about non-corporate computing in schools, but I’m not sure how to win it beyond the obvious democratic nature of open source software. Perceived ease of use, familiarity, and path dependance – that up-front investment that locks in future decisions – always seem to win the day. The shape of this debate, or more accurately non-debate, has echoes that resound throughout free societies. I’d love to think we had the boldness to trust each other and to take on the burden of learning something new if only for the personal benefits, but the scary unknown tends to fold us in on the familiar and the authoritarian.

But, that’s probably too opaque and possibly too idealistic. Here’s another big Chromebook related question: As organizations move to corporate controlled and held data in the cloud,  how organizations view their relationship to their data, to what they create?As I consider my use of Google docs – which I like very much – and what I’m putting there behind the curtain of my OS and my browser, I find an important distinction between what I hold digitally on a drive in my hand or in my computer and between what is held digitally in a Dick Cheney-style undisclosed location by people who I’m trusting to be responsive to me. Chrome is a leap all the way into this brave new world, in which we, the users, trust nice folks elsewhere with our digital products for work, learning, and play. I feel the requisite warm fuzzies to Google’s brand, but I can’t figure out why I should trust them more than Facebook, about which we are all quick to remind kids (and not each other) about thinking twice before uploading information. The differences are clear, but so are the similarities: Facebook and cloud operators like Google hold our data and form giant monoliths from which it is sometimes difficult to wrest accountability. As it has grown, Google has become a major target, like Microsoft before it, of cyberattacks from hackers and possibly quasi-superpowers like China. Eventually, Chromebooks are going to need anti-virus apps, or something like that, to protect them from the black hats.

Let’s slow down and catch our breath about Chromebooks and the cloud. I use the cloud – Google apps, Dropbox, the Aviary suite, SlideRocket, and so on. I love the ease of sharing between my PC and Android phone. Still, when we talk about a new direction for schools, it’s worth stepping back and looking at the whole picture, and simple cost analyses and brand loyalty isn’t enough. If Chromebooks reflect what we want kids to do with computers in school, we may need to start asking them to do more before we give them less.

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