Chromebook for Web Development

by luke patrick

how i shacked up with Chrome OS for a month

Last October, I hove my way over to Best Buy and bought myself an Acer Chromebook. Not because I needed a new junker-top. No — I bought it to use as a work horse.

And for exactly one month, I used it (almost) exclusively as my primary work machine. I hauled it to every coffee shop, sat with it on my front porch for hours, and made a handful of websites for clients.

Why did I remove myself from the gene pool? Why did I decide to donate 95% of my time to a machine with 2 gigabytes of RAM and a barely-there operating system?

Simply put: because it completely changed the way I work. And all for the better.

I’m not crazy, and I’m not alone.

Still, it’d be a lie to suggest I’m part of a mass surge to the Chrome OS side of the fence. I’ve only seen one other dev doing the same, and I live in a fixie-riding, tech-hippie part of the world.

After all, why would any code-monkey make the swap? All the stuff a Mac provides seem insurmountably superior. OS X comes with a laundry list of staples, environments, and tools. Stuff that every developer on the planet uses.

And yet, completely unpredictably, this heap of plastic that costs half as much as my thermostat has smitten me. Put an arrow in my tookus, Cupid. Every day I use this thing, I grow a little fonder. More importantly, every time I think it’s going to hit a development wall, it just keeps trucking.

“Here’s the future,” it seems to say. “Welcome to a totally different way to code!”

Which is frilly and stupid. But not untrue.

Let’s tackle an example:

Generally speaking, a cloud IDE doesn’t seem like a great idea. Before Chromebook (BC, if you will) most of my time was spent knee-deep in Vagrant. I waded through a complex system of customized shell terminals, local environments, and code generators. All these tweaks created a “thing” that quickly and efficiently produced code. It worked, and I was very familiar with it. Plus, StackOverflow is ripe with answers if something breaks.

A cloud-based IDE on the other hand offers none of this. It’s super restrictive by nature. There’s no modifying the editor (in a detailed way, at least) and you’re stuck with whatever stack configuration is provided. It’s also just plain scary to not have your files stored locally. It made me shudder to not have my finger on the .yml mash at all times.

But now that life is post-Chromebook, I have to come out to myself a bit.

I absolutely love Cloud9 on Chrome OS. There are a lot of reasons why, but I can boil it all down to one: “Screw it.”

Do you know how much time I’ve spent installing, updating, modifying and producing dev environments on my Mac? When added up, I’ve probably lost whole days just to wiping Vagrant’s nose, hooking up a Docker container, or setting up CLI extensions for Sublime.

Using a Chromebook for web development is entirely possible

I can hear the complaints now, so let’s talk about it: yes, all of those things are pretty minor; No, they don’t take a ton of time. But we’ve all been frustrated with a box that isn’t working, or an environment that refuses to cooperate. Stuff breaks — it just happens.

But with Cloud9 at the helm, the worry is gone — just like that. Log-in, select the workspace you want, and you’re coding. Combined with the faster Chrome OS boot time, I can be working in as little as 15 seconds.

And I mean working. SSH already loaded, files exactly as I left them, the stack humming along nicely. My live previews are even already loaded. From the moment the workspace is booted, I am on my home turf cruising up the sideline.

Hail Mary, everybody!

What’s stranger still is the second-wave attraction I feel for Cloud 9. I used it “BC”, but it never felt right. But on Chrome OS, it’s a match made in heaven.

I can count the number of times I’ve felt trapped by Chrome on two fingers. In fact, my attention has even been tighter. There’s less chaff in the way, less confusion to muck things up. It’s just me, my code, and some bloke named Chrome OS that sits quietly at the periphery.

The zen involved here is nuanced, so let’s look at another area of Chrome to really hammer it in:

Because Chrome doesn’t have a desktop, it makes sure your stuff isn’t “jacked” — even if it’s jacked.

Imagine a world where (ideally) nothing you do is stored locally. There’s no need to worry about disc space, nothing that says you have to care about clutter, and no fussing about with file management. It’s all in the cloud, and you’ve got more than enough of that.

So, when your laptop gets swiped off a Starbucks coffee table, you don’t have to worry. You haven’t lost anything.

Stop to consider that for a moment. DEFCON 1 has been reached, and you can be as calm as Jeff Bridges. Why should you care? The old device is locked, all of your files are on the cloud, and you’re completely safe. You can waltz down to your nearest Best Buy, purchase a brand-new replacement, and be working again in only slightly longer than the 15 seconds it takes to boot the thing up.

It’s breathtaking, really. With no files to worry about and no real security concerns (outside of the philosophical), you’re freer than local environments could ever make you. In fact, I love that Chrome OS treats local storage like unwanted space. Everything on it can be deleted automatically, or at will. Think of it as a zero carbon footprint for your workflow. It’s clean, headache-free, and just right.

And not to beat a dead horse, but these things are seriously cheap. The theft scenario is apt: If a $130 computer (the cost of my current box before tax) gets nicked, what’s another $130 to replace it?

23 Starbucks coffees, and you’re right back in the game. It’s unbeatable. At the very least, it utterly stomps the loss of a >$900 Macbook.

Which leads me to my final point — the one I’m most excited about. If a seasoned web developer with snark and experience digs Chrome this much, what would a kid think of it? What could that same 23 cups of Starbucks coffee mean to a high schooler with ambition, but little access?

If I’m totally honest, I get paid pretty well to do what I do. Most of my peers are also paid well (sometimes extremely so) to do things that a Chromebook can handle with gusto. What kind of opportunity, then, could a single piece of sub-hundred hardware provide an ambitious youngster?

The possibilities are astounding. Given everything Chrome OS represents, we might well be on the verge of a more egalitarian web. One where the Web itself is the focus, and not the sticky bits on the periphery. The code is the core, and that code is cheap. With one piece of hardware and an online education, anyone can do what I do.

Does that make me scared? A (very) little.

Mostly, it just makes me happy I tried it out.

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