Are Stanford students living in the clouds? Our recent Chromebook lending pilot at the Terman Engineering Library pointed out some interesting trends that involve the adoption of Google Apps and cloud computing/storage in general.
Google has become a work and social portal for students, offering an array of online services that include document storage and sharing, office applications, calendaring, social networking, and ebook storage (just to name a few), all accessible through standard web browsers. It was only a few years ago that most of these services were brought to us through desktop applications, requiring individual software applications, a computer on which to install them, and storage space for data. A web browser was just one of these applications. Since then, it has become the ultimate application – a platform for accessing computing power stored elsewhere on the web. It was just a matter of time before consumer computer hardware was specifically developed to focus on that web browser experience... and to no surprise one powerful example was brought to us by Google.
Chromebooks are low-cost, ultra-portable, secure, fast, "web-based" computing devices running ChromeOS, a complete operating system based on Google's own Chrome web browser. Beyond appliance computing terminals, these devices represent another step toward a cloud-computing paradigm, supported by the online tools and storage that Google itself provides. The shift of computing power to the cloud and the ongoing build-out of wireless networks allow for a vast reduction in computing power in the hands of the user. Think of how much computing can now be done with a simple smart phone nowadays. Companies have even started to adopt technology models that allow them to reduce the physical ownership of equipment, opting for a more nimble and scalable model with computing power stored in the cloud and purchased "as a service," with interesting payment and access options that include pay-as-you-go, cost per GB of data transfer, maximum bandwidth allowance, and open seats available, etc. Many companies have gone so far as to allow new employees to supply their own computers with the assumption that access to cloud resources can be for the most part system agnostic, and taking into consideration the massive cost savings in avoiding hardware and support costs (notwithstanding the unique security issues associated with this model). Back here at Stanford, we had an opportunity to see how far students have come in this move toward the cloud with our circulating Chromebook pilot.
For this pilot, the Terman Engineering Library purchased three Samsung Chromebooks for student lending, provided a cloud printing option in the Engineering Library, and asked that students fill out a survey when they returned the device. Our research interests included hardware shareability, staff technology support models, security, student adoption rate of Google apps, cloud printing and document storage. The devices could be checked out for 1 week and students were able to use their existing personal Google account or Stanford Google account to login. Once logged in, students could install new Chrome apps into their profiles. All profiles and data were wiped when the device was returned to the library.
The survey responses were generally positive and opinions were fairly consistent on the pros and cons of the devices. Nearly all of the respondents were regular users of Google Apps. For these users, the devices were seen as a cheap, lightweight option for portable access to Google apps and to the web in general. It was very clear from the responses that Chromebooks cannot currently replace primary computing devices such as laptops or desktops. Certain software just isn’t yet available as a Chrome app or in an online version. Not many people tried cloud printing as the set up was admittedly difficult. Wi-fi or mobile data connection is required to access most applications, websites and online documents. While there is a limited ability to edit Google documents offline and save them to the local hard drive for later synching, internet access is really needed for Chromebooks to shine.
Demand for the devices was high. Students tended to keep them for the entire week, and many immediately checked them out again upon return. As secondary computing devices, Chromebooks have clear potential. Whether the demand for this category of device comes at the expense of iPad/Tablet demand is an open question. The release of touchscreen Chromebooks makes it even more unclear how this niche fits into overall computer hardware market. What is clear is that Google continues to influence computing hardware, which is ultimately pulling more users into their digital ecosystem.
The Engineering Library intends to expand the program with the purchase of additional devices. We continue to be interested in ways to overcome the stated software limitations of these devices. While new Chrome apps are constantly released, experimenting with other solutions such as remote desktop and cloud desktop may be in order.