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Ten years of improvements have made Chromebooks pretty great

March 12, 2021, 2:47 PM UTC

In the closet of horror, as my wife sometimes calls it, there are veritable archaeological strata of old tech gear. This morning, I was rummaging around to see how many Chromebooks survived into 2021. The answer? At least three.

The golden oldie is a Samsung Chromebook 500C from May 2011. A Google Chromebook Pixel from 2015 cost way more. And a year later, it was time to experiment with something cheaper again: the Toshiba Chromebook 2. In addition, sitting here in my office are two of the most recent efforts from Google, the Pixelbook of 2017 and the Pixelbook Go of 2019. (The oldest surviving laptop in the closet is a 1999 PowerBook G3, in case you were wondering.)

The Samsung model will boot only to a screen that says it needs a repair. The Chromebook Pixel appears to take a standard USB-C cable for charging but isn’t powering up today, which is making me a little sad because it’s a lovely machine with a killer keyboard. The proprietary power cable for the Toshiba is lost amongst the detritus. So we’re zero for three on the longevity score.

Both recent machines remain in full working order and the 2017 Pixelbook, in particular, is one of the great laptop designs of all-time. I regularly grabbed it when heading out to get some work done in a coffee shop in the before times. It’s the best Chromebook of all time in my book. Kudos to lead designer Alberto Villarreal.

While the hardware has gotten better over the years, the operating system has improved at least as much. The whole concept of being able to log into any machine and have all your stuff right there remains the killer feature. And your apps can come from Chrome or Linux or Android or even Windows lately.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of the Chromebook and Google celebrated by announcing some new features for the OS including a nifty clipboard manager, closer Android phone integration, and the “Tote,” a new place to stash files on the dock, err, shelf. John Maletis, who heads product and UX for Chrome OS, is promising even bigger improvements to come, though a bit vaguely. Expect “artificial intelligence technology to help people proactively, integrating sensor technologies for more personalized experiences, [and] expanding our portfolio of devices with cellular connectivity.” I don’t think he means a Chrome OS phone. Maybe the first 5G Chromebook is coming soon?

One brilliant piece of the strategy has always been that as cloud computing gets more capable and more powerful, every Chromebook does too. For example, Chromebooks have never included top-notch graphics processing but with Google’s Stadia cloud gaming service and rivals like Nvidia’s GeForce Now, that almost doesn’t matter anymore. The monster GPUs are in the cloud.

In many ways, Chromebooks fit the classic model of technological disruption outlined by the late Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. First derided as underpowered toys, Chromebooks have been closing the gap with more expensive laptops, which are often getting better in ways that no one really needs. A decade in and amid the pandemic laptop boom, Chromebooks even outsold Macs for the first time. In another 10 years, they may be ahead of the whole market.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

It’s been a year since kids across the country left their classrooms and started learning from home. On today’s Brainstorm podcast, Hardeep Gulati, CEO of Powerschool, discusses the importance of the company’s end-to-end platform for not just students and teachers, but parents and administrators, as well. We also discuss hot ed-tech startups and how teachers are using technology to engage students in new ways. Listen to the episode here.

NEWSWORTHY

Beep, beep, Beeple. Famed auction house Christie’s sold a work by digital artist Mike Winkelmann, who goes by Beeple, for $69 million on Thursday. Well, they sold a non-fungible token linked to the work, which is called Everydays: the First 5,000 Days. The buyer was Justin Sun, founder of cryptocurrency platform Tron, who set a new high water mark in the red-hot NFT art market. Two quick points: Everydays is AMAZING and could only exist digitally. Also some noted it was the highest sale for any living artist except David Hockney and Jeff Koons. Have you seen Koons' sculptures? Bow wow.

Deep Mac. A lawsuit by Apple against a former company executive has the entire tech press corp wondering who took the cookie. Apple says Simon Lancaster, who oversaw advanced materials research, leaked loads of secrets to a certain reporter who is not named in the lawsuit. Sleuthing around the dates and hints in the document seem to point to authors of stories in the fall of 2019 about Apple's VR/AR work.

I'm just goin' to the store. Roblox wasn't the only important tech stock debuting this week. Coupang, often called the Amazon of South Korea, went public in a traditional IPO and its shares jumped 40% on Thursday. My colleague and Term Sheet author Lucinda Shen talked with Coupang CEO Bom Kim. Revenue last year almost doubled to $12 billion, but "we’re just scratching at the surface,” Kim says. Speaking of big foreign companies going public, Jack Ma's Ant Group is still trying to resolve China's objections to its debut but it won't be CEO Simon Hu's problem anymore. He resigned on Friday and has been replaced by chairman Eric Jing.

Pour one out for phishing. The cyber attack o'the day could disrupt your plans for sudsy beverages this weekend. Molson Coors Beverage said hackers disrupted its brewing and shipping operations.

Partaking in your password por favor. How many people are sharing your Netflix login credentials? After years of turning a blind eye to the practice, Netflix is seemingly testing an authorization prompt, showing some users a screen that says "If you don't live with the owner of this account, you need your own account to keep watching" along with a button to open a new account, The Streamable reports.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Karen Hao, the reporter on the A.I. beat at MIT Technology Review, is just killing it. On Thursday, her latest piece investigated the failure of Facebook's algorithms to delete all the lies and hate speech users posted. It's all about Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, who heads Facebook's Responsible A.I. team. Facebook said Candela's team wasn't responsible for addressing the misinformation problem, which didn't compute to Hao.

When I described the Responsible AI team’s work to other experts on AI ethics and human rights, they noted the incongruity between the problems it was tackling and those, like misinformation, for which Facebook is most notorious. “This seems to be so oddly removed from Facebook as a product—the things Facebook builds and the questions about impact on the world that Facebook faces,” said Rumman Chowdhury, whose startup, Parity, advises firms on the responsible use of AI, and was acquired by Twitter after our interview. I had shown Chowdhury the Quiñonero team’s documentation detailing its work. “I find it surprising that we’re going to talk about inclusivity, fairness, equity, and not talk about the very real issues happening today,” she said.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few great long reads I came across this week:

When SPAC-Man Chamath Palihapitiya Speaks, Reddit and Wall Street Listen (Wall Street Journal)
Buy! Sell! Tweet! An icon of the amateur trading masses and an evangelist for SPACs, Chamath Palihapitiya is commanding the financial moment with a blend of deal-making prowess, social-media savvy and moxie.

The 'megascale' structures that humans could one day build (BBC)
What are the biggest, boldest things that humanity could engineer? From planet lifters to space cannons, Anders Sandberg explores some of history's most ambitious visions – and why they're not as 'impossible' as they seem.

The Case for Sober Cocktail Hour (GQ)
On the pleasures of indulging in the ritual, even if you’re not drinking alcohol.

Il Maestro By Martin Scorsese (Harper's)
If further viewing is “suggested” by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Verizon customers will have to pay premium prices to access its fast 5G network By Aaron Pressman

Why Merrick Garland needs to rethink the Google antitrust case By Christopher Koopman and Caden Rosenbaum

It’s a pretty good week for Altos Ventures By Lucinda Shen

What the first-ever U.S. national cyber director will need to succeed By Peter J. Beshar and Jane Holl Lute

Dear Pandemic: A braintrust of female scientists is answering your every COVID question By Kristen Bellstrom and Claire Zillman

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

Before sharing passwords was even a thing, Netflix started out as a DVD rental service. It seems like ancient history now, but it was largely Reed Hasting's mail-delivered movie discs that knocked out video rental chain stores like Blockbuster. In a perfect bit of digital schadenfreude, next week Netflix will start streaming the documentary The Last Blockbuster (yep, there's one store left). But it's Friday. Get off your screens and enjoy the weekend.