As it tends to do around this time of year, Google is making waves this week with its Google I/O developers’ conference in San Francisco, where it announced not only the innovative WebGL-enabled music video we profiled on Wednesday, but — more importantly for the future of computing — its Chromebook series of netbooks, which sit somewhere between the tablet and the laptop and are designed from the ground up for cloud computing.
Perhaps Larry Ellison wasn’t wrong about “thin clients” — just 15 years too early about the tipping point when processing power and data storage would retreat from the personal computer at the edge of the network, migrating back to big, centralized mainframes like the one pictured above.
Google envisions schools and businesses snapping up Chromebooks (initially from Acer and Samsung) at bulk rates for deployment across student populaces or roving sales forces. But as happened with the personal computer, plenty of “regular” people will surely buy these devices over the coming years too, as their data and software continue to migrate to the cloud where they can be accessed by multiple personal devices.
After all, if all your music and apps are stored online, why would you carry around a laptop, with its expensive memory, operating system, and other accouterments more suited for downloading email in 1996 than for listening to Spotify as one edits a Google Doc and plays the web app version of Angry Birds?
As music fans make the transition from iTunes-style music collecting to the cloud — not only on these recently-announced Chromebooks, but also on smartphones, tablets, and other computer-like devices that are not computers — they’re in for some big changes:
No more “home base”
The main allure of cloud music is its elimination of bloated client-side software like iTunes, which duplicates music files all over your hard drive, eats up RAM, and requires wires to transfer music to devices. Instead, your computing devices will function more as input points for uploading songs, bookmarking them on music services such as YouTube, tagging them as favourites within a music service, adding them to your personal collection, or making playlists out of them in order to find them more easily within a large subscription library.
Your media and playback software will reside on a server far, far away, whether its administered by Google, Amazon, Apple, or whoever. Say goodbye to knowing where your music actually lives — the future of music collecting lies in access, not storage.
Web apps are your new friends
If you want to branch out to music services that are not offered by the same big company behind your netbook or operating system, web apps — including not only official Chrome apps like the ones offered by Google itself but also web-based music services such as MOG, which runs within a browser — will become a crucial part of your music experience. Google plans to charge an extra $2/month for the ability to install Chrome apps, but anything you can access within a web browser will be free to access (other than whatever subscription fees you have to pay to access those services).
Data plans are the enemy
Other than worrying that the company you just entrusted your music collection to might go out of business or change its terms (assuming services don’t agree to enact “one big database” to allay those fears), the biggest problem with cloud computing, and by extension Chromebooks, is the limited wireless data plans upon which they rely for just about everything whenever there’s no access to WiFi.
Assuming you use your data plan for nothing else, here’s how much wireless listening the standard Chromebook 3G wireless plans will allow (assuming a 128 Kbps bit rate for the music) depending on how much you pay for your wireless data, above and beyond whatever your music locker or subscription service might cost:
Free 100MB per month (what you get with the first two years of ownership under the current plan): 1 hour and 45 minutes of music playback for an entire month
$10 for an unlimited day pass: listen all day
$20 for 1GB of data in a given month: a little over half hour of music per day
$35 for 3GB of data in a given month: nearly two hours of music per day
$50 for 5GB of data in a given month: a little over three hours of music per day
As Chromebooks and other cloud-oriented devices take hold, music fans will come to appreciate what is now a relatively arcane feature: the ability to cache music offline, so that we can listen without eating up our data plans — ironically, the same way we do today with iTunes, just on a smaller, bite-sized scale.