The Google Cr-48 Netbook, Chrome OS and GIS

I’m rolling here with the Google Cr-48 Netbook and after a weekend with it I’ve come to some conclusions about how we work with GIS data today, how we’ll work with it in the future and what it means to try and use one of these cloud netbooks in 2010. I won’t rehash what others have said about the hardware, it’s really bad in places (the trackpad on it could be the worst input device in 20 years), but it does give us a glimpse into where many of us will be in December 2011.

First off, moving between the Cr-48 and my iPad is pretty easy. Both boot up almost instantly, don’t have hard drives, are connected to the Internet via WiFi and 3G and break the traditional concept of a file system with your OS. Browser-wise, they are both derivatives of WebKit so they handle most of the latest JavaScript apps with ease. There is some issues with lag on the Cr-48 vs the iPad on these web apps, but I have to assume when Google Chrome OS is release, it will be as snappy as Chrome is on my Mac or PC.

A quick spin to WeoGeo Market seems to show that the Chrome OS is just as compatible with as the the Chrome browser is with existing websites. (no duh, right?). I was able to order a dataset, save it to the the Chrome download folder (or whatever this disk space is called in the Chrome OS) and forward it on to a friend. While I can’t really work with shapefiles (yet) on the Chrome OS because you can only run web apps, you can still work with files and even upload them to websites to share.

WeoGeo on ChromeOSWeoGeo on ChromeOS

My next stop was Esri’s and their web map app. Works just as you’d expect (at least when you fight through the trackpad), but I was shocked when I tried to view some of their Flash API maps. Chrome OS ground to a halt. Adobe says they are totally on this” (paraphrasing), but it is yet another reason to question why anyone would built apps with Flash anymore. Hardware on these Chrome OS netbooks is going to be very weak, so much like we’ve seen on Android, Adobe better be really good at making their plugin run on these minimal configurations.

Esri APIEsri API

Stick to the Esri JavaScript client for now with Chrome OS Netbooks

So just to be safe, I dropped into Geocommons to see how their flash front-end works. As with Esri’s Flash API, it gets there, but the Netbook practically just stops responding when working with it. At least Geocommons has a workaround, you can append view=javascript to the end of any map url and get the JavaScript version which works great in Chrome OS. You lose come functionality, but at least it works and works darn well.

GeoCommons FlashGeoCommons Flash

The Geocommons Flash frontend works, but causes the Netbook to stutter. Google and Adobe need to fix this pronto.

GeoCommons JSGeoCommons JS

Geocommons JavaScript front end works great, but isn’t as feature complete as their Flash front end.

A quick check at the Esri Silverlight Showcase returns what you’d expect with Chrome OS. It is a JavaScript and Flash world at Google and at least for now, Silverlight isn’t part of it.

No Silverlight for YouNo Silverlight for You

Yea, you’d expect this. The problem is that Netflix doesn’t work either. Bah!

Yea so don’t rush out and try and buy one of these Cr-48 Netbooks if Google wasn’t nice enough to send you one. They are really not usable as an every day device today. I’m sure as we get close to the release of these Google Chrome OS Netbooks next year, the OS will become more stable and usable. That said, the writing is on the wall for traditional apps. Niche use is all we’ll see of them moving forward. Google, Apple, Microsoft and others are all committed to running consumer apps as hosted services and these Netbooks (plus all the iPads and Android tablets that are going to be sold next year).

Now don’t think for a minute that I’m talking about ArcView in the Cloud or any other wacky thing that someone might come up with while drinking some GeoKool-Aid. No, I’m talking about eliminating the need for ArcView on 95% of all desks and using web apps for these people to work with the data. Those that need the editing and analysis capabilities wouldn’t be on a netbook in the first place so they are really unaffected by these changes. But I just can’t see how any organization can afford to pay for ArcView (or MapInfo, or whatever) licenses for users that are viewing data. We’ve been talking about how those days are over for it seems like a decade, but I think the pieces are coming together in 2011 to finally put the fork in apps such as ArcView (real GIS pros need ArcInfo, sorry Esri), Microsoft Office and other enterprise” apps. Geo isn’t special enough to need hundreds or thousands of ArcView’s on desktops across the organization. Time we started facing up to the fact.


December 13, 2010