Friday, January 17, 2014

Exploring a new mode of working

In discussing the changing landscape of desktop support, I've often said that the laptop and desktop will change dramatically over the next few years. That isn't really a novel concept; many industry analysts have predicted the same. In one vision of the future, the tablet and phone will merge with the laptop and desktop, providing a truly portable system. VR and AR systems such as Google Glass may further modify that future state, so that the "display" is something you wear, rather than something you put before you.

However you envision the future, "data on the desktop" will be a thing of the past. Computing will shift to the Cloud; we are already on the way there, with office applications moving to Google Apps, and other day-to-day applications moving to web-based systems. In a few years, your laptop will contain nothing; it will be a simple device that lets you connect to other systems.

We have such a device today. Google's Chromebook is a glimpse into that future state. We showed a Chromebook at last year's Technology Showcase, among other new technology devices. The Chromebook is basically a laptop that connects to a wireless network, and where you use the Chrome web browser to do your computing.

But how well can the Chromebook replace an office computer? I'll be testing this experiment over the next month or so. My intention is to use the Chromebook instead of my work laptop, using it to do all my daily tasks. Since most of my work is done via Gmail and Google Docs, this should be a fairly straightforward transition.

I've already started the experiment, and I can report a few findings:

1. Printing
In a typical laptop or desktop computer, you load drivers to talk to a printer connected to your computer, or to a printer connected to your network. But the Chromebook doesn't work quite in that way. Instead, you need to use Google CloudPrint, where you "print" to a CloudPrint system, and a printer essentially "picks up" the print job. If your printer doesn't do CloudPrint by itself, you'll need to set up another computer to do CloudPrint for you. In my case, I've set up a Raspberry Pi to do CloudPrint to our office printer. That's working very well, and adds only a few seconds whenever I print something.
2. Second display
I have a second monitor at work. When I'm using my regular laptop, the second monitor provides a larger "desktop" where I can do most of my work. For example, I typically do Google Docs in the larger display, while keeping an eye on Gmail in the laptop's display. So I'm using two displays to provide a single "desktop" experience. The Chromebook supports a second monitor using HDMI, the same connection that you use on your HD TV. Unfortunately, my Dell monitor doesn't support HDMI. Using an adapter cable provides a lower resolution (1024x720) on the Dell monitor, so everything is huge. Looking on message boards, I see others have this same problem. Since I don't have an HDMI monitor, I'll plan to use the Chromebook without a second display during this test. 

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