In the personal-computer industry, where things change fast, one fact has been a constant for years: There are two major, mainstream operating systems for consumers. One, Microsoft Windows, runs on many brands of hardware and dominates sales. The other, Apple’s Mac OS X, runs only on its maker’s Macintosh computers, and has had a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Other contenders, such as various versions of Linux, have remained on the fringes.
Next summer, however, Google hopes to add a third broad-based computer-operating system to challenge the duopoly. It’s called Chrome OS, and is based on Google’s Chrome Web browser. With Chrome, Google isn’t just aiming to elbow its way into the OS business. It’s hoping to change the entire paradigm. Instead of storing most programs and files on your computer itself, the Chrome OS will mainly run programs from, and require you to keep your data in, the cloud—remote servers located on the Internet. In effect, it turns your entire computer into a giant Web browser, instead of treating the browser as just one among many local programs.
The Chrome OS isn’t finished, and isn’t ready for broad public testing. Google readily concedes it has lots of bugs and rough edges. But the company has designed a small test laptop with the new operating system installed and distributed “a few thousand” of them to outsiders to try.
I have been using this machine, called the Cr-48, for about a week, and have some explanations and first impressions to share. This isn’t a formal review; that will have to wait till the product is finished and is on commercial computers.
I focused mainly on the software, which is built on a Linux underpinning. That’s because Google doesn’t ever intend to sell the Cr-48 hardware, an all-black, unbranded laptop with a 12-inch screen, a rubbery surface and a large, buttonless touchpad that resembles those pioneered on the Mac.
In my tests, I found this early Chrome OS machine to be fast, with decent battery life and almost instant resumption from sleep. It handled most Web sites fine, and worked almost exactly like the very nice Chrome browser on Windows and Mac.
I also liked the one hardware feature worth mentioning: a radically redesigned keyboard. Instead of function keys, or various legacy keys such as Caps Lock, Chrome OS keyboards feature dedicated browser-oriented keys, like ones for moving back and forth among Web pages and windows, refreshing a page, entering full-screen mode, or quickly opening a new tab and beginning a search.
The Chrome OS will have a big advantage. Because it is mainly a front-end-to-cloud service, if you lose your laptop, you can get another one and just sign into your cloud accounts. You should be able to find all your stuff waiting for you.
However, users of the Chrome OS will have a huge adjustment to make. They will have to give up the rich, local programs they have spent years learning to use and tweaking to their liking. You can’t install local programs on a Chrome OS computer. Instead, Google provides a Web Store inside the browser that allows you to download icons for “Web apps”—mostly websites designed to look and work like standard programs.
Some of these, like Gmail, are familiar and popular. Others are newer. For instance, the New York Times and AOL already designed Web-based news apps for Chrome OS, and there is a Web-based version of the TweetDeck program for Twitter. These apps, and the store’s own icon, appear on the new Tab screen of Chrome OS (and also are available in the current Chrome browser.)
In my tests, I found these apps generally worked fine. But most aren’t as rich and versatile as local Windows and Mac programs. For example, there was no way to play my local, personalized iTunes music collection, unless I spent many hours uploading it to some Web-based service.
I also had to settle for Web-based productivity programs—like word processors and spreadsheets—with many fewer features than standard local ones, such as Microsoft Office.
And I ran into plenty of frustrations. At this stage, Chrome OS can’t do anything with USB flash drives or SD memory cards, and can’t synchronize phones. And it has a very limited ability to store, or allow you to do anything with, email attachments or other files you might download and prefer to keep locally rather than on a server controlled by somebody else.
Printing was a chore, requiring a complicated setup on a Windows computer that Chrome used as a conduit to a printer.
Plus, Chrome OS is hardly stable yet. I suffered numerous crashes of Adobe’s Flash player, and even Google’s own Google Talk instant-messaging service, which appears in a little pop-up window on top of the browser. The company says it hopes to fix these problems by next summer.
Finally, the biggest downside: Because it’s a cloud-oriented system, Chrome OS is almost useless if you lack an Internet connection. Google says it plans to offer some limited offline functionality, and to encourage makers of Web apps to do the same. It will also eventually be able to make some use of some files stored on external hard disks. But the basic operating mode will require you to be connected to the Internet.
To help with this, the Cr-48 has a Verizon cellular modem built in, to supplement its Wi-Fi connectivity. Verizon is offering 100 megabytes of data free, but that is a small amount, and you have to pay for more.
Like the Mac OS, but unlike Windows or Google’s own smartphone operating system, Android, the Chrome OS will be deeply integrated with hardware. So, Google doesn’t plan to distribute or license the new operating system to every hardware maker—at least not at first. You won’t be able to install it on an existing computer. It will be available in 2011 on a limited number of computer models from selected manufacturers.
Google says this is because security is a high priority and requires special hardware designs that tightly bond with the software.
Also, Chrome OS computers will, in some respects, be more like iPads than laptops. They won’t have hard disks, just a limited amount of flash-memory storage, and they won’t have DVD drives.
They are an attempt to realize the old idea of a “network computer,” or one which is mostly a front end for network services.
Of course, many people already spend most of their time with their PCs and Macs connected to the Net. Many use Web-based email programs or streaming music programs instead of local software.
So the time may be right for a cloud computer, a change in the paradigm. Google certainly hopes so.