• Tech

Stop Calling Google’s Chromebooks Toy Computers

7 minute read

The crisp air of a late summer evening. Pristine erasers in a package of unused pencils. The rubbery smell of new sneakers still in the box. Some sensations are powerful enough to span generations—unmistakable signals that it’s back-to-school time.

Others, meanwhile, are more likely to betray a person’s age group. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably told your kids about making schoolbook covers out of paper grocery bags. Today’s students have no such concerns, of course. What they toss in their book bags is made of Chrome—Google Chrome, that is.

For the past several years, Google’s low-cost, high-utility Chromebooks have been the dominant computers in American schools. Effectively a browser in a no-frills box, the machines can cost as little as $150, yet perform the same functions (web browsing, email, word processing) a computer 10 times as expensive can. Right now, your kids (or their school) may be asking you to buy them one. And if you grew up visiting the library to use Print Shop, you’re probably wondering why they aren’t requesting a “real” computer, instead.

From parents’ perspectives, it’s an understandable question. Millennials were the first generation to grow up with computers from birth, pushed by their parents to master complex software so they could have marketable job skills. Now they’re in those jobs and raising families of their own, wondering why their kids are getting the opposite advice. It’s not that Mom and Dad were wrong, but their way of thinking no longer applies—or at least that’s what Google thinks.

“The way people think about things like productivity is very different among groups of students than it is for people like you and I,” says Rajen Sheth, a senior director of product management for Chrome.

Sheth recalls including his Microsoft Word skills on his first-ever resume. But these days, the iconic word processor is listed by none of the job-seekers whose resumes hit his inbox. “It’s expected that people know computers—they grow up with them,” he says. “The computer is almost as pervasive as electricity. If you think about that, it’s a very, very different world.”

If you’re a tech enthusiast like me, you’re probably as comfortable driving a Mac as a Windows PC. And if you’re not (an ambidextrous computer geek), you’ve likely settled in with one or the other. Either way, it’s unlikely you’re using a Chrome OS machine.

But younger consumers seem to be gravitating toward Google. Sheth says 70 million students are currently using Chrome OS. That’s an impressive number for an operating system barely six years old. If Chrome users were a country, they’d be the U.K., plus the Republic of Ireland to round things out. (I say this with apologies to history.)

No surprise, the first Chrome convert I met was a student. My barber, who was going back to school to become a mortician, needed an affordable computer, so she gambled on a Toshiba running Chrome. She says it was a drag at first because a lot of her coursework wasn’t suited for Google’s suite of built-in software. But after giving it time and acclimating to its quirks, she had no complaints. Since she graduated and started working in a morgue, the only difference she sees—between what she spent, and a more expensive Windows or Mac laptop—is the money left in her pocket.

This might sound like a fringe case, but according to Robert Half International, it’s the norm. Last year, Robert Half placed about 215,000 temporary professionals across a range of industries, including technology, accounting, administrative, financial, legal and creative. In a quick survey of the company’s brain trust, none had any qualms about Chrome.

According to John Reed, the company’s senior executive director of technology, employers don’t care about specific software or platforms. They just want potential hires to be tech savvy. “If you don’t have it, that’s not going to keep us from hiring someone who can add value to the organization,” he says. The only exception, of course, is if you’re a software developer in an area with specific computing requirements, he adds.

I’ve been using a Chromebook Pixel this past year, and enjoy its barebones, browser-based simplicity. While my Mac is still my daily ride, the Chromebook is like the motorcycle I take to work when traffic is nuts. Most of the software I work with, like Microsoft Office, works in a browser, while other apps like Slack have Chrome-compatible versions. The Pixel offers a chance to jettison all the extras cluttering my desktop computer. Sometimes that sense of liberation helps me get more work done.

I admit my biases as a writer are showing. I only have to push a cursor around, after all. My job doesn’t require professional resource-drowning tools like Adobe PhotoShop or Final Cut Pro, which don’t run in a browser. “I will fully acknowledge, there is a gap there,” says Sheth, who adds the divide is most pronounced for Windows-based business users.

Google offers a few ways around these hangups. The first is through online virtualization providers that run Chrome-incompatible Windows apps on servers for companies whose workers can log in and use the software remotely. It’s like streaming video to a browser, only in this case you’re streaming the user interface to a remote computer that’s doing all the heavy lifting for whatever application you need to run.

The second way involves Google’s Android apps. This month Google made its more than 1 million apps compatible with Chrome. Not every Chrome OS machine can run Android apps yet, but I’ve taken them for a spin on my Pixel, and having access to the sprawling Android-verse adds enormous versatility to the system.

I know, all this talk of compatibility and virtualization makes Chrome OS sound convoluted, but in practice it’s the opposite. Chrome’s appeal boils down to this: If you can use a web browser, you can use a computer. Not having to worry about legacy busywork, say how to zip up files or create PDFs, can free you to focus on more meaningful work.

And isn’t that what we all want for our children? For all the chatter we hear about the skills gap, platforms like Chrome can narrow the divide by eliminating the mundanity of computing, instead of pushing students ever further, faster and harder. No more will we train future workers on achieving inbox zero or mastering billable hours. Instead, they can focus on core abilities like communication, problem solving and creativity. Refined platforms like Chrome can clear away these hurdles, and free young minds to run.

Just imagine: a life that feels like it’s in perpetual recess. You’d never have to say goodbye to the feeling of summer again.

John Patrick Pullen has written about smart devices and home automation for TIME and Fortune since 2009. His column, “Tech in Real Life,” appears weekly on TIME.com and explores the ways that technology impacts people in their daily lives. He lives (in a home that’s much smarter than he is) in Portland, Oregon.

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