You can't walk a mile on the Internet without stumbling across the same argument over and over: iPad or Chrome? Chrome or iPad? Apple, Google, and Microsoft walk into a room: there are two bats on the ground. Who comes out alive?
The answer, of course, is the proverbial letter D: none of the above. No matter how you slice and dice the various players in the netbook/laptop/tablet/whatever markets, the consumers are the ones that ultimately suffer from today's battles. In the case of Google and Apple, the loss is one of control. And I, myself, worry how this might represent the future of general or portable computing: A time when it's the manufacturer, not the user, who dictates every bit of how you interact with your system.
Think about it. We've enjoyed relative autonomy when it comes to laptops. You can purchase any kind of laptop you want for whatever price you want. While 99 percent of said laptops you can purchase run some variant of Windows, the operating system nevertheless allows you to take a great amount of control over your experience. Install any and all pieces of software you want. Tweak the operating system's numerous variables to match your personal preferences. Wipe the entire thing and install a brand-new operating system. That's a lot of customizability.
Yet, the (second) coming of products like Apple's iPads and, later, Google's Chrome OS-based netbooks, tear away from this control. Can you buy multiple versions of an iPad from multiple vendors? No. Can you buy a specific load-out for a Chrome OS netbook? Yes and no--Google is mandating certain manufacturing requirements for the devices, rumored to include high-performance graphics, accelerometers, and solid-state storage.
What's the problem? For starters, this raises the bar for entry by taking away your ability to choose a functional Chrome OS system at a particular price point. As well, you lose choice: You won't be able to buy an all-in-one, Chrome OS device unless you agree to concede to a few particulars. Maybe you don't want a solid-state-drive--perhaps you need more capacity and less speed?
Well, wish upon a star, because that's where the market's heading. The growth of the portable PC platform--or, rather, expansion thereof--is being dictated by companies that have already decided that they know what's best for your computing experience. That's not an outright criticism per se , provided said companies hit one out of the park with their products. However, it's difficult to foster rapid innovation when the reins of discovery are controlled by a single entity.
Take Apple: It's a soup-to-nuts deal in Cupertino. Not only does Apple dictate the hardware, design the device, and exclusively sell and price its product, but it also is the sole arbiter for the policies, procedures, and pricing for any application that's sold onto the device. The platform is, for all intents and purposes, locked.
I realize that none of us have to buy an iPad if we don't want to. However, this thing is being heralded as the killer of netbooks--that's a pretty big paradigm shift for a product that's more restrained in its use than any netbook I've ever seen.
Aside from Google's mandates that Chrome OS netbooks Kick Ass, there's also a fundamental shift underway to change the nature of how you interact with software and applications. For starters, Chrome will demand--and live--on an increased partnership with Linux. That's great for an open-source enthusiast, but not so great for a consumer used to a common set of applications that simply don't exist on this alternative OS. Beyond that, there's Google's devotion toward combining the offline experience with Web applications. To compare the potential downfalls of this scenario against a typical Windows setup would take a new column entirely.
So is that it? Fewer choices and less customization are the heralds to a new dawn of computing? Apple and Google might launch cooler products, but the overall benefits for end-users are severely restricted by each company's mandates--regardless of their profit-driven or altruistic intents. Where's the product that combines a conventional computing experience with awesome new innovations and user-driven control? That's going to be the real game-changer: not a locked-down, portable PC.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software.