Why the first true post-PC era device isn't the iPad. It's the Chromebook.

Summary:You can't claim to be post-PC if you can't start using the thing without a PC (or a Mac).

Image courtesy Flickr user spareorgan.

I was planning to write about the new White House cyberpolicies (and I'll probably circle back around to them next week), but when ZDNet's gamification guy, Peter Cohen, sent me a note about how Congress-critters are using iPads, I couldn't pass it up.

Apparently, Democratic party whip Steny Hoyer has switched from using scraps of paper for tallying votes to an iPad. The party whip in America is essentially the enforcer in Congress, the person who makes sure the party falls in place.

With Republicans over the past decade or so, getting them to fall in line has been a relatively reliable and repeatable process. Getting two Democrats to agree about anything is always a challenge, so the job of the Dem whip is about as easy as herding cats -- self-indulgent, entitled, inconsistent cats whose concept of team play is agreeing to not agree. Gotta love our two parties!

In any case, Hoyer is using an iPad for whipping Democrats in line and that got me thinking about what his usage pattern must be like. In order to manage and upgrade that iPad, someone in his office has to connect it to a Mac or PC, regularly run an actual physical cable connection, and sync.

It seems to me that you can't claim to be post-PC if you can't start using the thing without a PC (or a Mac).

On the other hand, there's the new Chromebook.

This device may actually be a post-PC device. It turns on, it runs. There's no special connection to a PC or Mac, there's no installation of iTunes or any other monolithic, horrid software. You just buy a Chromebook, turn it on, log in, and go.

Of course, there are differences. The user interface and physical design of the iPad are clean and moderately clear. iTunes, on the other hand, seems more like a Google product in its ugliness, inconsistency, and cumbersome performance.

While Apple never met an interface it couldn't simplify, Google (with the notable exception of its home page) has never met an interface it couldn't make more complex. Have you ever tried organizing your profiles in Google? It's almost an impossibility.

That's why it's always seemed bizarre to me that Apple has locked its iOS devices to PCs and Macs. I also think it's the one thing that will both hold Apple back from total dominance of the next generation and is the great big, huge hole the company has left open for Google.

For here's the thing. We techies can't tell our clients (and by clients, I mean parents, friends, siblings, in-laws, neighbors, and anyone else whose computers we have to fix on a regular basis) -- we can't tell these people to "just buy an iPad".

Owning an iPad still involves having a working computer. Yes, I know you can configure an iPad on your own computer, lock down the apps that can be installed, and hand the iPad to your parents. But you're still in the loop.

A few months ago, I wrote about my force-of-nature senior citizen neighbor and how he'd managed to break through all of the PC protections I'd put in place. I'm beginning to think a Chromebook might be the answer.

Grandpa can just get a Chromebook. The only thing you'll need to tell him is how to connect to WiFi (and even that can be replaced by 3G connectivity). Beyond that, since it's just glass to the web, and no working PC or Mac is needed, the Chromebook may well be the first post-PC PC.

See also: When your security software leaves you to the wolves

See also: 5 top reasons it might be time for an iOS desktop

I've been pushing my neighbor towards an iPad, but a Chromebook will be a lot more like what he's used to, especially if it’ll handle an external mouse. And, of course, the big seller is that the iPad needs to be tethered to a PC, and the Chromebook doesn't.

It's a shame there are trade-offs here as well.

Google isn't known for its tech support, so if something goes wrong, you're still getting the call. On the other hand, if you're in a metropolitan area, you could send your client to visit an Apple Store and talk to a "genius". Sadly, if the problem is with the tethered PC or Mac, no amount of Apple genuishood will solve the problem.

Overall, I'm intrigued. The idea of a basic laptop that requires no maintenance from the "they'll fix it at Thanksgiving" army has enormous appeal. There's no doubt the Chromebook won't be as sexy as the iPad, but if it just works, that's more than sexy enough.

And that brings me full circle to the Democratic whip. Because while the iPad is easier to use while twisting arms, it still means system and device security is left to individual Congress-critters and their "I know a guy" mentality. Despite all the recent cloud disasters, it may just be safer to let Google manage congressional information than Apple and "the boy my cousin Marge knows who's good with the Halo".

See also:

Yes, I know storing everything in the cloud can cause BIG security problems. But given what I've seen my neighbor do all on his own, I'm thinking some cloud-based action might actually be safer. So, what do you think? Has Google finally ushered in the post-PC era? Have you say below.

Topics: Apple, Google, Hardware, iPad, Mobility, Security

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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