Recently I’ve noticed that Google has been doing a lot of advertising for Chromebook. The devices themselves are made by several different companies, of course, but all of them run the Chrome operating system created and controlled by Google.
The ads make several implicit comparisons with “regular” laptops – faster startup, longer battery life, no viruses – even though Chromebook are not really computers. In fact, they have more in common with 70’s era devices known as dumb terminals.
A long, long time ago, in my first undergraduate programming class, we never got to touch the computer itself. Instead, we had to punch our program into cards, one line per card. The cards were stacked up and delivered to a window in the computer center where someone would feed them into a reader for the machine to process. Two to twelve hours later, we could pick up a printout of the results.
A few semesters later, I took a graduate-level programming class that offered special privileges. I was able to interact directly with the computer through a CRT terminal similar to the one above. It was known as a “dumb” terminal since the device had no computing power of it’s own and simply acted as an input device for the huge machine in a nearby room. But at least I didn’t have to carry around a big box of cards.
Although Chromebooks do have some processing power, their primary function is to act as a window into the web, especially Google’s online applications. Almost all the work is being done by machines located in data centers around the world. The results of all your work are also stored out there in the cloud.
We can debate the relative value of Chromebooks and whether they are good devices to be using in schools (or using at all).
But please don’t tell me that kids with those devices are using computers. And that they have exactly the same capabilities as any other laptop.
When using a Chromebook, you are sitting in front of the modern equivalent of the dumb terminal I used fifty years ago.
The picture is of a dumb terminal very similar to the ones that lined one wall in the computer center at my college. They came in a variety of forms.