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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

It's Not A Linux Laptop

Google's new ChromeBook may look like a Linux laptop, but look again - it's the return of the Network Computer.

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I've been watching the commentary on Google's announcements yesterday that their Chrome OS will be available on laptops from partners - ChromeBooks -  and that they will offer a scheme where they provide a ChromeBook to businesses and students for $20-$30 per month. It's clear that some people are not seeing the real deal here. I've seen comments on early reviews, and Twitter saying this is just a Linux laptop and asking why it will be any more successful than previous abortive attempts at the same, such as putting Ubuntu on "netbook"-style laptops.

But the ChromeBook is not just a laptop with Linux. It uses Linux, yes, but that's incidental to the end user proposition. It's a network computer - the same vision at which Oracle failed in the mid 90s and which Sun struggled with for over a decade. The design is such that you'll not be able to use it with your home servers if you have them, nor connect it to your home media devices. While you can jailbreak it, the intended use is not as a general-purpose computer.

Instead, it's a browser in a box, complete with a local cache for offline use, intended to be used online all the time to access services of the kind Google delivers through Google Apps. It stands and falls not on its utility as a Windows-competitor, measured in disk Gb, CPU speed and graphics power, but on the completeness of the online world it delivers.

Oracle NCs and Sun's SunRay were both niche devices used by corporate IT departments and their users inevitably had another computer in their lives for the rest of their needs. I used a SunRay for years and found it was the perfect corporate terminal, with the "state" managed elsewhere to minimise costs. But I still needed a personal computer too. The ChromeBook will succeed if it addresses enough of each customer's needs without forcing them to also buy another computer.

There's also the software freedom dimension. Google is using a vast amount of open source software to make the ChromeBook happen, not least the Linux kernel both in the device and in the network services upon which it depends. But what about user freedoms? Are they being protected? Is there real support for liberating standards like ODF? Will ChromeBook users have the freedom to leave, or just a choice of prison?

Given the number of people I know who use only a web browser these days, it's possible that the Network Computer's time has come and that the ChromeBook will succeed. But my instinct tells me it's still too early, that the things the ChromeBook offers aren't broad enough yet and that there's no distinctive respect for software freedom.  The time is drawing near, but I think the portable network computer that wins the race is yet to be released.


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