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Gaps in the Cloud

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Well, I’ve been getting a lot of use out of my CR-48 ChromeOS netbook, and I’ve found that I can do almost everything I normally do with it, although not always with FOSS. There are a few gaps that I haven’t found either proprietary or FOSS options for, and that is the focus of this post.

The biggest one is financial management. I’ve been stuck away from home for about a week and my CR-48 is my main lifeline to the outside world. I can look up my bills online, and pay my bills online. The one thing I can’t do from my CR-48 is access my checkbook register.

The problem is that I’m using Quicken for my checkbook, and the only way to get at that remotely is to remote desktop into a windows server over ssh (perhaps a virtual one). The CR-48 doesn’t support either RDP or ssh connection forwarding (which is the only way I’d ever use RDP – without setting up a VPN or something equivalent).

The most obvious proprietary alternative online is mint.com, but it really isn’t a Quicken alternative. Mint is great for telling me what happened last week, but horrible for telling me what will happen three weeks from now. I get paid monthly, so I can’t afford to pay somebody $500 today only to find out that I have some big transaction coming in three weeks from now that will send me into the red. Sure, I could just keep some huge balance in my account, but I’d rather keep large balances someplace more useful (like paying down loans or in some kind of decent investment).

Email is a big FOSS gap. Right now I’m using Gmail and that is great. However, it would be better if I could set up my own cloud hosting for Chrome OS authentication/syncing, and have a Gmail-like experience with FOSS. The closest I’ve seen is RoundCube, which is nice, but it lacks the keyboard shortcuts and streamlined interface of Gmail. Drag-and-drop is a real pain on a netbook, and just being able to hit “e” or archive to deal with incoming mail is a lot easier than the multiple-click-on-small-icons workflow of RoundCube to do the same.

FOSS up till now has tended to focus on big desktop applications. I guess it makes sense from the standpoint that the average desktop user isn’t going to set up their own LAMP box. However, I’m perfectly happy to set up a LAMP box and run my own cloud-based services. It just seems like there aren’t many worth running.

I suspect we’ll start to see better solutions if cloud-based netbooks (running ChromeOS or whatever) take off. As we move towards a more mobile world, it becomes more important for data to be accessible on the run.

Oh, and if nothing else it would be REALLY nice if somebody came up with an NX client that runs as a Chrome application. I’ve seen a VNC app, and I guess I could sort-of live with that (if it supports ssh), but NX would be much nicer. An RDP-over-ssh app would also be nice…

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Written by rich0

January 31, 2011 at 11:28 am

Posted in chrome, foss

First Experiences with the Chrome OS Netbook

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Just got a nice surprise in the mail on Thurs – a CR-48 Google Chrome Netbook! Here are some of my first impressions from it.

I have given Chrome OS a test drive or two over the last year, either in virtual machines or using USB drive packages of it. My impression at that time was that this had some potential, but my experience was fairly marred by the low performance of USB flash or virtual machines, and of course the touted benefits like battery life and fast boot don’t really work out well in that kind of environment.

With the Netbook, those particular features stand out – and they do make a big difference. Granted, perhaps my experience with laptops in general has been marred by my employer’s tendency to load their standard image up with junk, but I’ve never found laptops to be “instant-on” in real life, and they struggle with battery life. With Chrome OS I tend to just let it sleep most of the time and I get real instant-on, and if I do power it down the 10 second boot time is VERY realistic – perhaps even pessimistic. Login time – oh, about two seconds. I haven’t tested the full battery life though others have – in my heavy use in the last few days I haven’t gotten the thing under about 85%.

Since I use Chrome as my day-to-day browser I basically was up and running about two minutes after turning the thing on. This is touted as another benefit of Chrome – any device is basically interchangeable with all the cloud syncing. I could see this being useful for an employer – just have a pool of laptops and let employees grab one and use it, rather than having a 1:1 assignment. Provisioning new units of course would be a snap as well.

Performance of the unit is fine – a few webpages that run slowly in Chrome on my desktops run slow on the netbook, but really I see nothing to complain about here.

So, let’s talk about the downsides to the hardware. I’ve always struggled with trackpads. This one doesn’t have hardware buttons, it is purely gestures, and it has two levels of sensitivity (though I’d appreciate if the hard-press required SLIGHTLY less force). I’ve disabled tap-to-click, as perhaps I’m ham-handed, but I find that I constantly bump it and mess up whatever I am typing. Perhaps some intelligence would help here – ramp down the sensitivity when I’ve just typed 500 consecutive characters with no mouse use (hmm, maybe this is a good use for that send-feedback button). Without a hardware button to hold, click-and-drag is difficult except for very short drags, and that complicates things. Also, I’ve found the right-click and middle-click gestures to be unreliable, sometimes causing navigation I don’t want to happen which of course tends to slow me down and possibly lose work.

Click-and-drag is a problem for me, because of the way I manage email. I am a big Thunderbird user, and I used to use SquirrelMail for those times I needed remote access via the web. I just switched to Roundcube which is a little nicer if you have to live with nothing but web, but that app is short on keyboard shortcuts (sounds like another feature request coming on – n for next would be nice, and a delete shortcut as this thing has no DELETE key). I have been browse over search kind of guy with emails for years, and I’m finding that sorting mail into folders with this netbook is pretty painful. I suspect that I’ll need to change over to more of a search mentality to cut down on my need to browse. Gmail really is a better model for limited UI experiences, and I’m wondering if much of that time I spend micro-managing my email is a value-add.

I’m still on the fence about drinking the cool-aid and switching to Gmail entirely, at least as my primary mail interface (perhaps with an archive being sent to my server for safety). Right now I’m hosting my own email, and I really like not having to deal with quotas/etc, and the security of not having it all out on the cloud. I guess if I want to be really trusting I may be able to just have Gmail be an IMAP client to my server. It would be really nice if I could figure out a way to easily just have an IMAP-only password for my account – I’m sure with a little hacking I could get that working, and my email is backed up daily so not too much could go wrong there.

Right now the number of apps that work offline is fairly limited – mainly just notepads/etc. For the most part I’m using my Cr-48 around the house, which doesn’t make that a big problem. In fact, it is pretty rare for me to be completely without network, and my android phone really covers those kinds of remote situations well already. The Cr-48 does have 3G with Verizon, with 100MB free per month for two years. I’m not sure how much I’d even need to use that, but this really would be all I need for the rare email check on the road.

App selection for Chrome is still pretty limited. I’d really like to see:

  • Offline Email Client
  • NX Client
  • SSH Client (better than the crosh one which works in a pinch)
  • Offline Google Docs (ok, now I’m dreaming)
  • Decent Media Player and File Browsers for external storage

One thing I have found is that you really need to use it for a day or two before passing judgment. Some of the things that drove me craziest passed as I got used to doing things differently. However, I’m still not sure I’m ready to do away with home/end/pgup/pgdown/delete (I never use insert).

I’m sure there will be more to follow. I’d be interested in the impressions of others as well.

Written by rich0

December 18, 2010 at 8:41 am

Posted in chrome, linux