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Google offers FDs mobile alternative to PCs

IT has long been held true that there is nothing new under the sun. In fact, as this famous quote appears in the Book of Ecclesiastes which dates from around the third century BC, it is a fair guess that this aphorism has actually been held true for at least 2,000 years.

And it is certainly still true today in the world of IT where the arrival of Google’s Chromebook has been met with a sense of déjà vu. These shiny new things are netbooks running Google’s Chrome operating system. The devices rely on an internet connection for their applications and so come with wireless networking and 3G cellular connections.

Google’s pitch for the Chromebook is simple: it is cheap and speedy and can be rented by organisations for a fixed monthly fee. They will require no patching or maintenance as all of this will be done through the magic of Google’s cloud, which will also take care of backups and security. And few would argue that a company of Google’s stature will not be well equipped to perform such tasks.

However, there is a telling comment in a Google statement about the devices. The company states: “Thanks to the power of HTML5, many apps keep working, even in those rare moments when you’re not connected.”

The keyword for most enterprises will surely be “many”. What about the other apps – the ones that don’t keep working? Even in these days of highly pervasive internet connectivity, there will inevitably be times when mobile connections are lost, as anyone who has ever been on a train trying to keep a cellular data connection will know all too well. And do not forget that Google, Amazon and Microsoft have all suffered (minor) outages to their hosted cloud services this year.

How these issues will affect the use of the Chromebook in the real world remains to be seen. But a new poll conducted by The Inquirer found that 47% of respondents said they prefer to keep their documents on their own PCs, for precisely the reason that they wanted to continue working offline.

The Chromebook has been widely touted as Google’s attempt to hammer the final nail in the coffin of the PC championed by main competitor Microsoft. But looking back, it is worth remembering Sun Microsystems’ famous “the network is the computer” PC killer. This was based on the cloud-like model of central computing resources feeding data and applications to dumb terminals dubbed Network Computers. But reports of the PC’s death were greatly exaggerated. Instead, it was Sun Microsystems that took the bullet. Sun Microsystems shares, which in September 2000 reached almost $260, were worth $1 just eight years later and the business was swallowed up in 2009 by Oracle.

So is the PC on life support now that Google is threatening to pull the plug? Not if market experts are to be believed. Gartner estimates that worldwide PC shipments will total 387.8m units in 2011, a 10.5% increase from 2010. This is forecast to rise to 40.6m units globally in 2012.

It seems that the PC is hardly in its death throes, but Gartner does goes on to point out that it has reined back its estimates for PC sales, largely due to growing enthusiasm for mobile PC alternatives, such as the Apple iPad, other tablets and, possibly, devices such as the Chromebook.

I do not doubt that the Chromebook is an interesting technology – though as yet unproven – which offers compelling selling points for certain users, just as iPads and PCs do for other users. And the muscle of Google combined with the very real trend towards cloud computing mean that we are going to be talking about Chromebooks for some time to come.

So pour out a slug of this old wine in new bottles and raise a glass to Google, Microsoft, Apple and the next new thing.

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