Originally written for Hacker Noon on Medium.
Our definition of computing needs re-thinking and fast
I’m sitting in a coffee shop, sipping a latte and typing away on a Pixelbook, the new high-end Chromebook from the folks at Google. If you’re not aware of what a Chromebook is or has been, think cheap and basic, a glorified browser in laptop form, targeted at students who need simple word processing, email, and web browsing.
The Pixelbook, however, is neither cheap nor basic. In fact, it might be the most beautiful, best-performing piece of hardware I’ve used in years. A tweak here or there, like smaller bezels on display, and this little beauty would match anything Apple has released in laptop form over the past decade.
Great, the hardware is finally a step up from hot garbage. Unfortunately, it still runs Chrome OS, the browser as an operating system, an underpowered, incapable base layer for getting anything worthwhile done. No Photoshop, no Excel, no Final Cut, nothing in the way of professional applications.
In past years these criticisms would have been mostly correct, a bit harsh, but not unfair.
This newer Chromebook, though, has a new trick up its sleeve, the addition of a significant piece of new functionality that changes the entire discussion on what life with a laptop or tablet is meant to be.
The Pixelbook runs Android apps from the Google Play store.
Wait, mobile apps aren’t the be-all-end-all. Even being able to access all the Play store has to offer doesn’t solve the issue of the missing Adobe Suite ( no Photoshop, Illustrator or Premiere ) or the full versions of MS Office ( Word and Excel ), the apps everyone mentions when the discussion around what computer need to be able to do gets started.
This concept, of what “users” need, runs through every review of the Pixelbook found online;
”Despite anything marketing might tell you about the Pixelbook, the selling point here is the hardware-nothing else.” — 9to5Google — Ben Schoon
”Google appears to see the new Pixelbook as the Chromebook’s mainstream moment as a consumer laptop. That’s probably a bridge too far….” — TechCrunch — Brian Heater
”But the elephant in the room is that it’s pretty expensive. “Maybe not as expensive as the leaks expected it might be, but a Chrome OS laptop isn’t going to be capable of running full versions of critical productivity software (yet at least), and that’s gonna hold it back a bit…” — 9to5Google — Stephen Hall
”One of the more puzzling questions after the recent Google hardware event was an obvious one. Why would anyone bother spending $1,000 or more for a Chromebook?” — USA Today — Bob O’Donnell
”Considering the application limitations of Chrome OS, which locks you to use web apps and services in the Chrome store, this makes the Pixelbook a potentially hard sell for power users.” — Trusted Reviews
Inside the world of traditional computing, the above reviews sound like a reasonable critique of a thousand dollar piece of equipment and yet the more I use the Pixelbook, the more I have a sneaking suspicion that those reviews and the industry, in general, might be missing the point entirely.
Please take a moment and Imagine for me your idea of the typical laptop or tablet user.
Does that vision look anything like this?
For those who don’t want to watch the video, it’s an Apple ad for the iPad Pro, showing a young girl going about her day using the iPad to write, draw, take photos and communicate with friends. In the final scene, the young girl is lying in her backyard, working away on the iPad. When her neighbour leans over and asks, “what yah doing on your computer” the young girl responds, “what’s a computer?”. Now some might argue that this is Apple painting a rosy picture of the iPad-dominated future they’d love to see come true, but for me, the young girl in the ad feels a lot more like where we’re at, as opposed to where we were headed. Looking both into and outside our North American bubble, what people want to do with their devices isn’t the age-old vision of big desktops, traditional laptops, and legacy software. Instead, it’s mobile, it’s connected, and it’s familiar.
Users are spending so much time in the space between creating and consuming, between work and play, that I don’t know who would choose to have a device that can run Photoshop but can’t use Snapchat, or Instagram, or Messenger or the countless other apps we use on our phones and tablets. Those apps present a profound opportunity for connecting, sharing and interacting with the world around us. So, of course, it makes sense that they’d be available on every device, all the time.
The Pixelbook ( like the iPad Pro ) is here to mark the end of non-mobile computing.
So, what then is the broader description of mobile computing? Think always-connected devices, running highly specialized applications with us everywhere we go, consistent in experience and limited only by what can be downloaded from a central source. It is our tether to the modern world, our friends, our family, the content we love to consume and everything in-between. Borders or socioeconomic boundaries don’t constrain mobile computing; it’s the purest form of what only the internet could have made possible. The smartphone started it, tablets reinforced the notion, and today, in hardware like the Pixelbook, the laptop form carries the story forward.
Mobile has, in fact, “eaten the world,” and it’s only going to get bigger.
Two billion people are between the ages of 10 and 24. It is the fastest-growing demographic on the planet, with the majority ( 1.9 billion — give or take ) outside of the United States. Combine this sheer mass of youth with the fact that many of them live in countries where owning a computer hasn’t been a reality, and the infrastructure has never existed to provide in-home broadband, and you plant the seeds for an entirely new user base. Add in higher penetration of mobile phones and smartphones, which have been readily available, if not commonplace outside of North America, and you have what is now a wholesale shift in the computing landscape.
So I ask again, who are we talking about when we say that devices like the Pixelbook can’t do what users need?
The vast majority of worldwide users have had to make do without ever using Photoshop or Excel. Instead, they’ve had to find ways to create, compose, craft and communicate without the benefit of anything more than phones running single-serving mobile apps or the occasionally well-crafted web application.
I think it’s time we reevaluate just what an “average” user needs, looks like and wants to do and while we’re at it, how about we put an end to the discussion about whether a Chromebook or an iPad can get work done and accept that they already are.
Just announced at CES, another, less elegant example of combined experiences: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-09/new-dell-pcs-to-sync-messages-calls-with-iphone-and-android