Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Clarifying my Views on Google

I was at a meeting tonight where we were talking about Chromebook issues and the like. Given that there's been a great deal of activity on some of the mailing lists I'm on, mostly from myself, I thought it might be a good idea to do a post on it (actually, I should probably doing this straight to an email on those mailing lists except that I don't want to...).

Firstly, a disclaimer. I have a vested interest in not going the Chromebook route. It's a direct competitor to "the image". The image is awesome. For me it represents a completely different way of looking at computers. The user has the control. This is from my "Holy crapballs on toast. Why are we even debating giving these people control?" perspective from a corporate environment. At one point I was asked to go to an office and enter in a password for someone for people who's jobs (developers) required that level of access. So I jumped into a taxi, went down to the office and entered in the password. Going on a hunch, I stuck around. And sure enough, it timed out on them while getting a coffee, and I had to enter in the password again (it had just cost me $15 in a taxi to get there in the first place).

Heart breaking...

So the Chromebooks. The Chromebooks are interesting. Remember in the mid to late 90's when Microsoft were having issues about their bundling of Internet Explorer into the operating system? The Chromebooks essentially do the same thing. They bundle a web browser into the... wait... the browser IS the operating system. There's no unbundling to be had.

From an options point of view, I find the Chromebooks to be terrible! Say you want to do something like... run minecraft for example. Minecraft has an education context (though I haven't yet seen it in action), runs under a VM (virtual machine) that is Java - made to be portable. Except that the Chromebooks explicitly blacklist Java.

In terms of functionality, they really are nothing more than a portable Internet kiosk. So the things you can do on a Chromebook are about the same as you can do at any standard airport Internet kiosk i.e. things to do with the Internet.

In terms of maintenance and control - I think they're TERRIBLE. From an organisational point of view, about the only thing you can do is lock down the version of the OS. The bit I heard tonight was "Version 25 works. 26 has bugs. 27 was pulled - it was that bad. Apparently 28 fixes a lot of the problems". This isn't a fix - it's more of a workaround from where I'm sitting. In terms of migration to other versions, it means you need to have a pilot group (in and of itself not a bad thing) to test for suitability of a particular version. Except that a pilot group is likely quite a small sample size. Can you be assured of catching problems at this level? So you'd then have to use a larger group for testing.

In and of itself, this is actually quite good practise. The problem for me is that you can't fix problems once they do arise. The only thing you can do is roll back the version of the OS. Get rid of you technicians - it's unfair to put them into this position of helplessness and it's silly to be paying technicians for something that you could be doing yourself.

So you have a problem with your Chromebook and you're having to rely on Google. So you file a bug report. Manaiakalani is in rather a privileged position and the same things that have worked for it in expediting fixes are unlikely to work for every organisation/school in New Zealand. How soon does that bug get fixed? Roll back to a version of the OS that sucks the least and sit and wait... Run tests at the next major version. Hope it's been fixed.

The hardware is brilliant. For the Samsung Series 5, it's the hardware that we should have had with netbooks. Unfortunately, the form factor of netbooks was dictated by Intel. So a 10" screen. Furthermore, the dream of having a nice really fast to boot system using a SSD (solid state drive) was unfortunately out of reach for Windows. The amount of space the OS and updates needed (and once you added MS Office...) made an SSD impractical. Never mind the Linux users who found the SSD great. Netbooks were also plagued by really bad design. The battery on the Chromebook is brilliant too. I get up to 10 hours from mine. No more having to sit next to a power point. My charger doesn't even go out with me on most days.

It's unfortunate that Google have, in their infinite wisdom, chosen to have the "scary boot screen" that displays for 30 seconds... a life time in computer terms. They couldn't go with a more sane value such as 5 seconds. 30 seconds. So even when you do decide to go with something a bit more flexible, you're stuck with the scary boot screen. Sure, you can hit Ctrl-D when the face appears. But it just soils the experience. There's something really off putting about it. It just feels like it's sulking. "What do you mean you want your computer to be flexible?!?!"

The level of lock down with the Chromebooks has been seen elsewhere - such as gaming consoles. But then, gaming consoles have never been mission critical. Should a child's learning be interrupted by a vendor's whims?

So basically, no, I wouldn't recommend a Chromebook in an organisation. I think there are much less risky options with a lot more functionality. If you don't want to operate in Google's way, you'll find yourself frustrated by things like having to set up your printer for Cloud Print. Needing to use particular (web front end) scanners etc.

As a personal machine, I still wouldn't recommend them unless you're willing to hack at it to make it more functional. However, this is dependent on your use. I'm sure there are lots of people out there who just want to be able to use the Internet. And it's probably fine for them. All power to you.

Can the risks be mitigated? Sure... I think a back up plan of usb sticks (I believe you have to run a command from the terminal - only accessible once you've entered developer mode - to enable usb booting but it's doable) is really smart here. I haven't tried it myself. This is about the closest as you can get to dual booting on a Chromebook.

As for Google, the company, it irritates me that they're such a PR machine. I saw "The Internship" last night and it was mentioned tonight speaking to Google's character. In my opinion, Google should be seen as any other business. Just like MS did with their products, Google are giving the first hit for free. They're unlikely to suddenly start charging for their services - for education at the very least. They have set a precedent in terms of their business services which were free for small organisations initially have since moved to a paid model. It might be altruistic. It likely is. Is it always going to be?

I find some of the approaches really irritating. I get the impression that I'm a dinosaur if I don't want to work Google's way (think scanners, printers, interface changes - particularly to gmail).

However, their services have opened up worlds. We've seen collaborative editing within documents that just work in real time. Their hangouts product have brought teleconference functionality to the masses. Gmail revolutionised the way that we think about our email. Their spreadsheets application should be shot at dawn (actually... why wait? Kill it now). The blogging platform isn't bad (though it's not great either).

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The use and development of Hapara's Teacher Dashboard is just brilliant. It's done amazing, you'd have to see it to believe it, things to education. I have absolutely no problem recommending that combination - Teacher Dashboard and Google Apps For Education (GAFE).

But this does not mean that critical thinking should fly out the window. What they're doing for education is great. Not all things that they do are going to be great for education. Run a critical eye over it. Look for pedagogical reasons and drivers. If it doesn't fit within an educational context, perhaps revisit it later on down the line. A decision now doesn't mean that it ALWAYS has to be that decision.

Remember... Google are a commercial entity. They collect a whole lot of data about you (and apparently our access points) and only anonymize it after 18 months (while still keeping the rest of the information).

At the moment Google have a privileged position. There's no one else offering quite the same things... or are they? Hotmail existed before GMail but didn't have the unlimited storage. So email and webmail in particular aren't new and alternatives can be found EVERYWHERE. Google Groups - you've got mailing lists. GroupServer looks particularly good. OX Text (and the rest of the suite when it gets done) offers docs functionality... The gap is going to close and all it needs is something to tie it together. Your eggs don't have to be in one basket.

The point is, Google are a commercial entity and have a history of some odd decisions (Gmail really does look completely crap on a 10" screen nowadays). But what's really important is that we know how to ween ourselves off. There's a risk that the functionality you rely on could disappear. What do you do? Are you so completely reliant upon Google that we've just got to sit back and dread the ride?

In other words, just because Google provide some really great services now, doesn't mean that we shouldn't be looking at alternatives. Yes, I realise that there are lots of people having trouble keeping up with the times (which is why I think I often get the impression that teachers are chasing logos a lot of the time). I don't think this is necessarily a question for the man on the ground but rather, is more of a management issue. You're managing risk. You're looking to the next big meaningful thing. You're looking at options. Eggs... basket... multiple...

As for me and Google... I fear we're soon to be parting ways. For no other reason than I really can't do the Google+ thing without feeling like a complete hypocrite around the whole names thing. Yes, I realise I can use Nevyn on there. People have pointed this out. BUT, it seems wrong that I was able to use the name Nevyn - a name I chose for myself - and others, who may be looking for an opportunity to reinvent themselves in some way, are unable to do so.

Anyway... The usual thing about how the opinions expressed here being my own. These views definitely aren't shared by a lot of the people I work with.

[Edit] 22/6/2013
I was talking to a friend the other night and I was explaining that I don't particularly mistrust Google. It's just that having that much power (information, communications etc.) in one place can not end well.


  1. Thanks for adding some perspective. We have just ordered 100 chromebooks and have 5 of the series 5 ones. There is a certain reliance on others that scares me. What it does allow us is to expand our programme replacing old netbooks. In a one to many environment I do think that boot time and remote Management make them a sound decision given today's options. Interested in what build you suggest for some nb200s we are looking to reinvigorate.

    1. I'm looking forward to doing the build :)

      I just haven't found the time before NetHui (and won't be back in Auckland for a week and a half where a machine I can test on can be found). Still - I should have the image customized and sent down to you before the end of the holidays.

      That reminds me... I should do a post on The Drop In Geek Cafe. The thing that's keeping me amazingly busy (along with health issues which seem centered around allergies) at the moment.

  2. Well Nevyn wasn't fishing for an image but if you were able to come up with one that would be super. Have a great nethui.