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With Chromebook, the forecast looks increasingly cloudy

Illustration of Chromebook's cloud capabilities.

We've talked a lot about computing in "the cloud": keeping your data and programs on some distant server, rather than your hard drive; accessing things remotely, from anywhere with a connection.

Whether you like that idea or not, the cloud may be coming to you -- courtesy of your company or school. At its developers' conference this week, Google rolled out the "Chromebook," a portable computer running Google's "Chrome" operating system. It's aimed at right at Microsoft's heart: replacing the Windows systems most of us use at work. And replacing it with, basically, the cloud.

We talk first with Darren Murph, a managing editor with Engadget who was at the Chromebook unveiling. He says imagine a 10-second boot-up, then a web browser... and that's basically it. Google is betting all the core tools we need -- word processing, email, viewing presentations -- all can be done within a browser on a super-portable and relatively inexpensive machine.

Versions of the Chromebook from Acer and Samsung, starting around $350, will be out in June. Though consumers can order them, Google's pitch is clearly to big institutional customers, who can buy or lease the machines.

Murph says there's a huge advantage for schools in being able to keep machines uncluttered, have them boot instantly, and completely reset them from class to class. And for companies, the promise is in major time and money savings, versus maintaining a fleet of PCs. Murph says it can cost up to $3,000 a year to set up a workplace computer, maintain it and provide tech support.

As you would imagine, where data lives has huge implications for how safe and secure it is. Allan Friedman, Fellow and Research Director at the Brookings "Center for Technology Innovation," says Google's pitching a substantial upside when it comes to security: all data and the operating system are in one off-site place; the data on each individual computer is not vulnerable to attack, theft or loss; possible threats could be easier to monitor.

The downside, says Friedman, is that "Google could screw up." One centralized failure or security breach could be catastrophic; companies need to place a lot of trust in Google's ability to protect their data. When a laptop goes missing, you know; when data is copied or manipulated in the cloud, dangers could take longer to detect.

As a palate cleanser after all this "computing-revolutions-that-might-change-the-world" talk, we hear a bit from none other than Nick Jonas (yes, that Nick Jonas) about writing the score for a new level of the online game "Wizard 101."

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.

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