Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

It's not perfect, but the Chrome notebook begs to be used for 1:1 in a school that has embraced Google Apps for Education as their collaboration platform of choice.

Technology pundits have been all over the board on Google's new Chrome Notebooks. They love it, they hate it, they don't know what to do with it, they don't know who will use it, they don't know if the world is ready for it. The folks here at ZDNet certainly have different opinions on the matter:

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Most of them cite completely valid concerns, challenges, and prospects for Google's operating system and the upcoming notebooks/netbooks on which it will run. I wrote last week that I expected Chrome OS to be a game-changer in terms of 1:1 computing and now, having used the demo Cr-48 that Google sent me as my primary computer for a few days now, I can say that this is the closest I've ever seen to an ideal student computer for secondary school 1:1 deployments.

That's not to say it's without caveats and you'll notice I was quite specific in my recommendation. This little computer is not going to have me trading in my MacBook Pro. It does make me wish I'd bought a Mac Pro with a giant monitor for my creative work that could sit on my desk, leaving the Cr-48 as my primary mobile machine, but even that scenario wouldn't always work out well (more on that later).

Before I go further, be sure to read Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols' proposal for how he expects the Chrome notebooks will ultimately be managed in the enterprise. Not only do I think he's right, but there are already Chrome apps that allow for a limited degree of management. It's only a matter of time before these are fully integrated into Google Apps domains for customers who want it.

That being said, if we can look a ways into 2011 and assume that there will be some reasonable degree of administrator manageability for Chrome OS, let's take a little more time to examine how the notebooks would work in a school. First, you need a Google account (whether consumer Gmail or Google Apps) to log into the notebook. Once in, you're in a browser, logged into your Google account. Thus, schools that aren't using Google Apps need not apply. The only way to ensure that everyone can consistently access their machines and leverage those manageability features that we know are on the way (including the existing Vyew virtual classroom app) is to centrally manage Google account information (as can be done in Google Apps for Education).

Within the browser, as with a desktop/standard laptop, Google Apps provides access to word processing, spreadsheets, website creation, presentations, blogging platforms, and more. The Chrome Web Store has free apps for photo editing, video production, note taking, Google Books, etc. Chrome OS, like the Chrome browser, now supports inline PDFs, leaving little need for any desktop productivity applications.

As I noted in this year's Ed Tech predictions post, schools will have the opportunity to spend a lot more time thinking about learning platforms and a lot less time worrying about hardware. The Chrome OS lends itself to cloud-based learning tools, whether Google Apps, an LMS, or another web-based platform for collaboration and instruction. The OS is the browser, after all, so all of your students' activities can be focused around modern collaborative tools and access to information.

Next: Some big caveats »

Don't worry, I'm not completely ready to throw out the Classmates and iPads and thin clients and desktops here. While the Chrome OS is a great basis potentially as a hybrid thin client for accessing virtualized applications and shared computing resources, I'll be the first to acknowledge that neither Chrome OS, nor the Cr-48 is perfect. It will not meet all student needs all the time and it isn't for everyone, regardless of grade level. Secondary students, especially those in 9-12, will be adept enough at accessing cloud tools and focused enough on collaboration and producing written, as well as basic visual content, that Chrome OS is ideally suited for most of their activities.

Younger kids are still much more likely to use actual Windows and Mac applications and simply don't (and shouldn't) spend as much time immersed in the Web as their older counterparts, making a completely Web-dependent notebook less attractive. Similarly, while some college students may think that Chrome OS is the ultimate Facebook machine, how many college students really have the cash to keep a netbookish device and a desktop or full-featured laptop?

This, as you'd probably expect, is the biggest caveat around the Cr-48 and the Chrome notebooks that will succeed it. It is, at its core (no Intel pun intended), a netbook on which you can't install applications (at least none that don't come out of the Chrome Web Store). I know, I know, I said it "Sooooo wasn't a netbook" over on the Google blog and, conceptually, that's completely true, in my opinion. From a strictly hardware view, however, it's a big-screened netbook. A single-core netbook at that. No matter how much I like it and can envision it being amazing in the classroom, it's not going to run Photoshop.

Nor will it run CAD or Sketchpad or Maple or any number of other hugely useful applications that like processors, RAM, and discrete graphics cards. Even for me, despite my initial regret at not having a giant-screened Mac Pro for screaming performance in video and photo editing and the Cr-48 for my main mobile machine, there are too many times when I need to run a virtual machine or generate artwork while I'm on the move. Sure, Chrome OS has utilities for collaborative drawing and abilities to touch up photos, but those 15-layer Fireworks files just aren't going to fly.

And for our students, even in that ideal age range of 14-18, there are times when a quick low-resolution video, edited for YouTube isn't going to cut it. There are times when serious technical drawing is a must or number-crunching beyond the power of Wolfram Alpha and Google Spreadsheets is in order.

1:1 deployments with the Cr-48 or any other low-cost device (even iPads) won't replace a powerful multimedia lab or two. In vocational technical schools, it might not even be a good choice at all.

As it stands right now, the OS and the devices themselves are very much in beta (I just switched mine to Google's development channel for more frequent, less stable updates). The codename Cr-48 itself refers to a particularly unstable isotope of Chromium. Flash support is spotty at best (I couldn't get an Adobe Connect room to open, for example) and access to system drivers is through a barebones web interface, making it very difficult to really tune the touchpad (and it definitely needs tweaking).

All caveats aside, whether as a result of the beta nature of the device or the actual use cases that a cloud-based OS can support, the Chrome OS and Notebook are, in many ways, just what the doctor ordered for educational computing. No saving, not dogs eating your homework, no viruses, not access to the underlying OS; just consuming and creating content in a remarkably seamless way. Schools just need to be ready to make the shift to the cloud (or have already made it) if they want to fully exploit the potential of the new OS.