Google's Chrome OS: What Is It Good For?

If Google expected a warm welcome for its Chrome OS and the new Cr-48 laptops it's currently giving away to select beta testers, it was wrong. The hardware has received a reception colder than Scrooge's heart. Folks at TechCrunch have given it a verbal lashing that would make a drill sergeant proud. For that past three days, I've been using the Cr-48. Here are my impressions.

The Mini-Review

The hardware:The boot-up is extremely fast and the log-on process is smooth and speedy, so long as one has a Google Mail account. (Google Apps ID doesn't quite work.) The screen is great, but the graphic capabilities are pretty limited. There is a single USB port and a flash memory card slot; frankly, having lived with the old MacBook Air with a single USB port, I don't see much of a problem. The trackpad is awful. I love the dedicated Search button and would love to see it on all computers. The laptop picked up most of the commonly used USB peripherals. Both a Logitech mouse and a Microsoft optical mouse worked just fine, without need for special discovery or driver installs.

The User Interface/Experience: The Interface is rough around the edges; what you see is essentially the Chrome Web browser. It takes too many cues from Microsoft Windows, which is understandable, considering that they are going after the mainstream and enterprise markets. The OS needs better font support and reminds me of some early Linux distributions. The user experience expects us to come to the idea of using browser tabs instead of apps—a weird notion, but not so strange if you have used the Chrome browser as your primary browser and are accustomed to cloud-based services. If you use Google Chat and Google Tasks, then you easily understand the idea of "Panels," a new feature inside Chrome OS that runs in small, easy-to-access panes at the bottom right of the browser. Even the best Web apps currently available at the Chrome Web Store are works-in-progress. The biggest challenge for Google's Chrome OS is going to be fighting against the many lifelong habits people have developed using a desktop OS.

The Cloud-Based Services: Despite being severely underpowered, one thing the device does very well is to let you use Google apps—especially Google Docs, Gmail, and other cloud services (from Google)—without problems. The YouTube experience is marginal at best. Netflix doesn't work. Most of your browser-based apps will work, but Adobe Flash on Chrome OS is like watching a toddler learn to crawl. It will be a long time before it reaches the maturity of Adobe on the Windows platform. Adobe has already stated that it plans to improve its integrated Flash performance in Chrome OS, essentially calling it a "work-in-progress."

Bottom line: Will I use Cr-48 or something like it as my primary computer? It would be tough for me to make Chrome OS my primary computing experience. I have a lifelong habit of using a full desktop operating system. That doesn't mean I won't keep an open mind, but for now it's a no-go for me. My more portable, 2.13 GHz MacBook Air is the machine I like. Even as I spend a lot of time inside the browser, I prefer a desktop with the Chrome browser and raw power. Plus my Mac has Silverlight, which lets me play Netflix and use third-party, native apps such as Reeder.

As Google stated very clearly, this particular device isn't going to be sold in the market; the company's partners are going to make the devices that consumers can buy. I hope they do a better job and come up with more attractive hardware.

The real story to focus on is the Chrome OS, what it really means, and whom it targets.

The Rise of the Web OS

Google's growth has coincided with the shift to the Web. Google is a company that has been a believer in networked computing from its inception. Since 2004 an increasing amount of our focus and attention has been devoted to the browser and what we can do inside it. The so-called Web 2.0 concept helped enhance the inside-the-browser experience, slowly replacing the desktop as our primary focus of attention.

Thanks to new technologies, ample bandwidth, and Moore's Law, the concept of a Web operating system has become reality. The Web isn't really an OS in the classical sense of the word, but is rather a platform to do things—make phone calls, play games, write documents, send e-mails, instant message, and even edit photos. These are some of the tasks certain of us old fogeys still do on our desktop operating systems with desktop software. Slowly and surely that desktop era is coming to an end.

Google last week announced its much-awaited cloud OS, the Chrome OS, which is nothing more than a browser running on a stripped-down version of Linux to capitalize on hardware features such as audio and video. In the end, Chrome is about doing things on the Web, inside a browser. Apple, of course, has taken a different tack for its cloud OS. The iOS that powers iPhone, iPod touch, and the iPad fosters the idea of using small chunks of code for doing specialized tasks and embedding the browser inside these apps.

In a blog post this past week, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt wrote:

So we've gone from a world where we had reliable disks and unreliable networks to a world where we have reliable networks and basically no disks. Architecturally that's a huge change—and with HTML5 it is now finally possible to build the kind of powerful apps that you take for granted on a PC or a Macintosh on top of a browser platform. You can build everything that you used to mix and match with client software, taking full advantage of the capacity of the web.

The Enterprise

Consumers are going to find Chrome OS very limiting, especially those with preconceived notions about what a personal computer is supposed to do. In addition, the availability of smartphones and tablets makes Chrome OS less necessary from a consumer standpoint because these devices are both more consumer-friendly and quite capable.

Google's own Android OS is already in front of consumers in the form of phones and tablets. Sometime next year the first Chrome OS devices will come to the market, and it won't be known until the end of 2011 whether or not Chrome OS can become a viable option in the marketplace. By then, as I wrote in May: "Who knows where Android will be?" If the early popularity of tablets is any indication, consumer computing is moving towards the tablet form-factor. For Android, this is indeed a good thing.

In comparison, Chrome OS is ideally suited for business environments that need lots of low-cost computers designed to do certain specific tasks cheaply and without much maintenance. Rolling out centrally managed apps, minus security problems and maintenance hassles, has been the Holy Grail for corporate computing. Chrome OS and HTML5-based Web apps that run inside the browser are a perfect solution, as I argued in my earlier post.

Our GigaOM Pro analyst David Card has agreed in his research note (subscription required):

Chrome OS also suffers from awkward positioning—both externally, to developers and potential customers, and internally, within Google's own product lineup. While it's true that PCs serve both companies and consumers, the value of the network computer premise appeals only to enterprise IT managers. Its manageability and simplified functionality play best in applications like airline reservations, point-of-sale terminals, and ATMs, or in limited-application mobile devices used in shipping and store inventory management. Yet, at least for now, app stores are purely consumer offerings. The apps Google showed last week all came from media companies (New York Times Co., National Public Radio, Sports Illustrated), Electronic Arts, and

Google should focus Chrome OS and all its energies on business buyers: call centers, retail outlets, and airlines to start with. It should forget about the consumers.

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