Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Decision to Leave ChromeOS for Linux

5 Months In, Why I Went Back to Linux

After about 5 months of using ChromeOS (on a Samsung Chromebook) along with crouton, I decided to switch back to a full-blown Linux distribution rather than running crouton alongside ChromeOS (in a chroot).  I detailed my earlier decisions and experiences in earlier posts in this blog.

My Experiences with ChromeOS and Crouton

In earlier posts I discussed using ChromeOS on my Samsung Chromebook. Using ChromeOS, especially on Chromebooks, is about working in the cloud. In this case, it is pretty much the cloud as defined by google.  There are many advantages to using a Chromebook in this way, which is how it is intended to be used:
  • Your data is automatically backed up to the cloud
  • Your Chromebook receives updates automatically. Unlike what one might experience with Windows updates, this works pretty seamlessly.
  • Your environment is protected against viruses
My general experience with working this way was quite positive.  The machine booted quickly, usually in about 10 seconds.  The chrome browser started. It remembered previously open tabs (from when I last closed the browser or shut down the machine), and restarted them. Depending on the number of tabs, this processing could take a while. Still, from shut down state, I was up and running quite quickly.
Essentially, the chrome browser is your desktop and is pretty much your environment.  Although there are some exceptions like the file manager and media player,  almost all your applications run inside the browser. With the advances made with HTML5 you can do amazing things within the chrome browser.  Essentially, many of things you run within the chrome browser are web apps.  That is, they are written to work solely in a browser environment, irrespective of the underlying OS.  ChromeOS also supports Chrome Apps, an enhancement of what were previously called packaged apps. Unlike web apps, these apps can use Chrome APIs to access functions of the underlying ChromeOS.  Unlike web apps, the packaged apps can be written to allow offline access to data.

As I mentioned above, my experience with working in ChromeOS was quite positive. Many of the things I use are web oriented. I use twitter, mainly to follow what others write rather than comment myself.  I use Google+ in a similar vein.  I also read several blogs, do searches, and do much of my shopping on-line. For those activities, ChromeOS and the chromebook are ideal.  As I mentioned in previous posts however, there were things which I could not do in ChromeOS, including:
  • Use GNUCash for budgeting and tracking expenses
  • Get data from my Garmin GPS watch via the ANT+ USB stick
  • Use a non web-based e-mail client
  • Use GIMP for doing graphical editing
  • Use my scanner and load the results into GIMP
For some of these, there are on-line alternatives. Obviously, I could use web-based mail. There are also some on-line financial apps and graphical editors.  Other than accessing my scanner and using the ANT+ USB stick, in theory I could use ChromeOS and web-based applications for everything I probably need to do. However, I chose not to because:
  • I am uncomfortable with having all my data, like financial data, in the cloud under the control of some third party.
  • I have been using Linux for over 10 years, and prefer certain open source software (OSS) like GNUCash and GIMP.
My discomfort with having using web-based applications for everything stems from concerns about both security and privacy.  The recent revelations about the NSA and their hooks into numerous firms, including Google, means that my data is neither private nor secure.  Allowing hooks into Google for access by government agencies, makes their system more susceptible to hacks by more nefarious entities.  Since the data is now accessible (at minimum) by both the company whose app I am using and the government, it is clearly less private, despite assurances to the contrary.

Using Crouton for Non-Web Access

As I explained in previous posts, I was able to set up crouton to allow access to things like my scanner and to run applications like GIMP and GNUCash. Crouton sets up a separate (via a chroot) Ubuntu environment which can be accessed via a key sequence.   When I wanted to use my email client, I switched to the crouton environment and accessed it there. Similarly, I used this environment for access to my ANT+ stick and scanner, and to use GIMP and GNUCash.  I also was able to set up software to copy/paste the clipboard between the ChromeOS and crouton environments.

I worked in this environment for months and was able to do pretty much everything I need to do. After a while, I rarely needed to boot up my old Linux laptop to do something.

Why I Decided to Change

First let me say that for many audiences, a Chromebook may be ideal.  They are catching on at schools, and this makes total sense. One feature I failed to mention earlier is the fact that multiple users can share the same physical Chromebook. Since all the data is kept in the cloud (at least if you use only ChromeOS), it is trivial to have multiple accounts associated with the machine. In fact, a student can log into a different physical Chromebook every day and not know the difference.  Administrators can set up the Chromebooks similarly with various extensions, etc..  Also, quite a few Chromebooks cost under $250 at retail prices. It was stated recently that 1 in 5 school districts is using Chromebooks now.

For consumers who are able and willing to work in a web environment, a Chromebook may be the perfect option.  For printing, if they have a cloud enabled printer, they can easily print from their chrome browser. At this point it appears that sales of Chromebooks are increasing, while sales of other types of laptop and desktop computers are decreasing.  If you are willing to buy into the idea of having all your data in the cloud, Chromebooks may be ideal for many consumers.

That last point is the major rub for me however. As I used the Chromebook more and more, and as more reports of the NSA and cooperation of Google and other companies regarding access to user data came to light, I became more and more uncomfortable with the entire premise of using so many web-based apps.  Just what are they doing with my data? How secure is it? We have all seen stories of various merchant sites being hacked and thefts of personal and/or credit card data.  Can you trust their privacy policy? Even if it seems OK today, will they change it tomorrow and if they do, will you be so wedded by that time to their application that you feel you have no choice but to go along with a changed policy that (potentially) gives you less control of your data.

With native applications, at least those that don't send data to the web, I have control of my data, as long as I have adequate security controls in place.  When I use the browser and web apps, I may not know whether I am giving up privacy and/or security.  With native applications I am familiar with, at least I should (hopefully) know.

Given this concern, one might ask, wasn't I already using a solution to this dilemma? After all, I already was using crouton which gave me native (and controlled) access to data.  I could use this environment for things where I wanted to guarantee better control of my data, while using ChromeOS for everything else.  Although this is true, I guess I consider the ChromeOS environment somewhat insidious. You get used to it and use more and more of its apps and after a while you are tempted to use it for almost everything. At that point, you have lost control of most if not all of your data.   Additionally, I got tired of constantly switching back and forth between the crouton and ChromeOS environments.

In the end, while the Chromebook might be ideal for lots of people, I decided it wasn't for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment