The big deal about Google's Chromebook

A screenshot of an ad for the Google Chromebook

Kai Ryssdal: The setting was a high-tech conference in San Francisco. The specific scene was a guy in jeans and what looked like a mock-turtleneck walking across a stage describing his company's latest and greatest new product. And yet, Steve Jobs was nowhere to be seen.

The guy on stage Tuesday was Sundar Pichai, he's a senior vice president at Google. And the whiz-bang new product at hand was the company's new laptop -- the Chromebook. Here to explain why yet another laptop might matter in the grand scheme of things is Marketplace's Steve Henn. Hey Steve.

Steve Henn: Hey.

Ryssdal: So laptop-schlabtop, man. What's new about this Chromebook?

Henn: Well, you know, the Chromebook is kind of more like the love child of a smartphone and the laptop than an old-fashioned PC. You know, some of the models will have 3G, the software updates automatically, and Google is saying that they will lease these to universities and businesses for $20-30 a month. Probably one the biggest difference, though, is there's no hard drive. So everything you normally save onto your computer -- from your resume to your master's thesis -- will be saved on a Google server or some other server and it won't be yours anymore. It won't be physically in your possession. But the really big difference, the thing that is scaring some people, is this thing doesn't need Microsoft software to work.

Ryssdal: So would some of those people being scared be the ones up in Redmond, Wash., who work for Microsoft?

Henn: Yeah. I mean, they should be. This is definitely how Google plans to undercut Microsoft's software business. These laptops are relatively cheap. They'll run Google apps and other web-based apps. They have word processing, spreadsheets, calendars, and Google thinks they have everything you need. The last time I bought a PC, I dropped like $200 to buy Microsoft Office. I won't have to do that any more. And businesses won't have to pay licensing fees. Those fees are the engine that's been powering Microsoft for decades. And Google's trying to pour sugar in that gas tank.

Ryssdal: But we just saw a couple of weeks ago problems with the cloud, right Steve? Amazon had its servers go down. You've got your entire life up there -- whether it's work projects or school projects -- and Google fundamentally can't guarantee that they're always going to be able to let you have it, right?

Henn: Well I think the argument that they would make is that actually their cloud servers are a lot more durable and redundant and safer than your laptop. If your kid spills a soda on your computer and you haven't backed that stuff up, you could just be out of luck. If it gets infected with a virus and turns into a brick, you could lose everything. The cloud's not perfect, but I think lots of people are going to argue over time, it is better than actually holding your stuff close to home.

Ryssdal: All right, I'm not sure I buy that one. But let me throw another one at you: the privacy aspect of this, right? You've got everything up there now -- you've got whatever private, personal documents you can imagine and you don't control it, right? It's out there in the ether some place.

Henn: Well yeah, that's true. And if you're downloading all of your stuff onto a server, whether it's Google's server or Amazon's server, what they do with your information -- whether it's a list of the songs you like to listen to or your diary -- is really up to that company and its individual privacy policy. The other big issue with privacy is how protected you are if you're ever investigated, right? Hopefully the DOJ is never going to come looking at your hard drive, Kai. But if they did, lots of folks think you'd be much better to have a laptop than a Chromebook. Allan Friedman is an online privacy expert at Brookings.

Allan Friedman: There is in American law a big distinction between the data that I currently possess on my laptop at home and data that is stored in the cloud. Data that is stored in the cloud is not protected.

Friedman says that if, say the feds wanted to get that data and it was on your laptop, they'd actually have to come and physically get it. But if you're putting all of your information on a server, Google is really the one that gets served and it's really up to Google whether or not they're going to fight to protect your information.

Ryssdal: Markeptlace's Steve Henn on Google's latest plan to take over the world. Steve, thanks a lot.

Henn: Sure thing.

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