Apps Are Important

I had a little bit of time to play with the Chromebook Pixel today and I’m a regular user of the Acer C7, a $199 machine that is wildly underpowered but good enough on a bad day. I really like the concept and I really like ChromeOS – it’s a solid way to get a little browsing done, say, in a cyber cafe or hotel bar. It isn’t, however, an OS.

As Linus Torvalds notes, the Pixel is an amazing piece of hardware and it makes you wonder just what other laptop manufacturers are thinking. It’s pricey, sure, but the touchscreen works well, the display is striking, and the styling is on par with the MacBook. Even MG (the G stands for Grumpy) liked it, and he doesn’t like anything.

But then there’s the problem of apps. Torvalds writes:

I’m still running ChromeOS on this thing, which is good enough for testing out some of my normal work habits (ie reading and writing email), but I expect to install a real distro on this soon enough. For a laptop to be useful to me, I need to not just read and write email, I need to be able to do compiles, have my own git repositories etc..

The creator of Linux, the paragon of pure computing, wants to install a “real distro.”


What the Chomebooks can’t yet do is run real applications. I’m currently dual-booting my C7 so I can install Skype on Ubuntu and you get this sense, once you’re in a real environment, that ChromeOS is like one of those “pre-OSes” that they used to stick on laptops so you could browse the web and watch movies without booting into Windows. It’s not all there.

That’s fairly easy to fix: allow vendors to create real apps for the platform. After all, Google is the “open” company, right? There should be a way for me to jackhammer Skype and Audacity into the ChromeOS environment. After all, a beautiful big screen is useless when all you open on it is Gmail.

Apps matter. As much as everyone clamors that Windows Phone and BB10 will thrive, they can’t do it without lots and lots and lots of apps. They can’t win without a dedicated developer base and groups of users who go out of their way to learn programming just to program for their favorite platform. While web-based apps are fun, in theory, we’re just not there yet in terms of real value. In the uncanny valley of application programming, HTML5 and attendant technologies are too stiff and jerky, like the humans in the first Toy Story movie. We need a few more years to bake them into real usability.

Until then, we’re stuck turning silk purses into sow’s ears (or, depending on your opinion of Linux, silk purses into penguins). I can’t, for example, recommend that my Mom pick up a Chromebook because she’ll immediately hit a brick wall when she wants to, say, Skype my in-laws. We can regress the argument down to “Well, they can use Google Hangouts” but that doesn’t solve the problem. In human-computer interaction, there should be more than one way to do something. That way, I’m sad to say, is through the introduction of a full SDK.