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What does Chrome OS and Google notebook mean to you?

Amazon's new 'Windowshop' app running as an Chrome App installed Chrome browser:

Amazon's new "Windowshop" app, running as an Chrome App installed in the Chrome browser:

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Updated: December 15, 2010 10:58PM



Huge tech companies like Google and Apple can do things that no other company can. They have enough money, resources, time to truly take a flutter. To try something new that the market hasn’t demonstrated an existing demand for. Even better, to tackle an idea that’s been kicking around for a long time but which no company could gamble on.

Google has taken the wraps off of the new Chrome Web Store and Chrome OS. We’re already familiar with the Chrome browser: it’s Google’s successful attempt to build a new browser built on speed and reliability. The new Store evolves Chrome into something more than just a container for content from your favorite websites. It turns this browser into a runtime environment for sophisticated desktop-style apps. And with Chrome OS, that simple browser window will become your entire operating system; your machine’s whole digital world.

But truly, Google’s big media event was all about the ambitious new Chrome OS. It’s not just a new operating system, but a new kind of operating system. It’s so different that it seems like it can only create a whole new form of popular computing, or fail miserably and blow away within a year of its release.

Which usually means that a company is truly on to something.

The Web Store is open right now. The idea is for Google’s Chrome API to give developers far more direct access to the power and features of your machine, and produce webapps that look and perform more like native desktop apps. The basic mechanism works just fine. I launched Chrome, searched the Store for Amazon.com’s new “Windowshop” shopping app, and it installed in one click.

Presto: instead of a conventional Amazon.com webpage, the Chrome window was displaying something more dynamic, pretty ... app-ish, for lack of a saner word.

Ah, but I noticed that the browser window was pointing to a “www.windowshop.com” URL. I opened that same address in Safari and saw ... exactly what I saw in the Chrome webapp. It’s the same deal in Firefox.

That’s the problem. Webapps that behave more like their desktop software are the main, marquee feature of the latest web standards. Even Steve Jobs spends a lot of time honking on about the power of open HTML5 standards to render proprietary plugins like Flash unnecessary.

How is Google going to convince users to switch over to Chrome, or make the necessary adaptations to their current browsers? Who cares: convincing web developers will be the real struggle. They can build webapps that specifically target Chrome, or they can build pretty much the same app that will run on Chrome and any other modern browser.

Google’s done this idea well, though. Your Google Apps homepage looks and works like the home screen on your phone or tablet. There’s a nice little lineup of clear, icons and your workspace remains consistent on every machine where you’ve logged into the same account. Install an app or a plugin in one place, and that’s your environment everywhere; your locally-installed apps and files don’t matter so long as you can connect to the apps and data you’ve got with your Google account via the Chrome browser.

That’s the key to the Chrome OS. The basic concept doesn’t impress highly when Chrome is an app running on different Windows, MacOS, and Linux machines. But Google’s designed an OS and a hardware spec for a totally new kind of computer: one that does nothing but act as a host organism for the Chrome browser.

They showed off a sample notebook running Chrome OS. Actually, they went one better and started off with a Chrome notebook in factory-fresh condition. They switched it on and it booted almost instantly. The setup included just one mandatory step: the user’s Google ID and password.

Seconds later, the Chromebook opened a Chrome window that fully populated with all of that user’s existing Chrome apps, services, and data.

It’s an OS and notebook in which a central server controls the whole show. All of the software’s being run remotely via browser windows. All of your data is stored remotely. Even administration is done remotely and automatically. Every time a bug or a security flaw is discovered and corrected in any component of the machine’s software, the server will automatically push it to the machine and install it, without the user’s involvement.

Google has teamed up with Acer and Samsung to produce the first consumer Chromebooks in mid-2011, with other manufacturers to (hopefully) follow. Chrome OS notebooks will all follow the same rough spec: keyboards and trackpads, built-in WiFi and 3G connectivity, and no local storage.

As it happened, I watched the live stream of Google’s media event after one of those mornings where I was flipping the bird at my notebook an awful lot. So the message “A Chrome OS notebook will be as reliable on the first day of Year Three as it was on its first day, period” was very well received.

But there are still some important problems about this whole concept. Some of them are sociological in nature:

1) What if I can’t connect to the Internet?

First, Google says that WiFi is everywhere. Then, they say that every Chrome OS notebook also has 3G. They’ve struck an eye-popping deal with Verizon to provide every Chromebook user with 100 megabytes of free mobile broadband every month.

That’s fairly incredible; this is the same carrier that charges Samsung tablet users an additional $35 activation fee every time they switch on the Tab’s contract-free 3G radio. This sort of news makes me wonder if Google might have pushed a theatrically-fat manila envelope labeled “Verizon CEO browsing history” across the table at some point during the negotiations.

But 100 megs sounds like the bare minimum volume of microtransactions required just to keep a Chrome OS notebook operational. Surely you’ll need either WiFi or paid access to the 3G network to do anything productive with a Chrome OS notebook. And what if you’re on a plane, or otherwise away from both WiFi and 3G?

Google’s third answer is that Chrome OS apps can also work locally. They cite the example of editing a Google Doc while offline. But that’s just text. Can I read a whole book on the plane? I certainly can’t watch a movie or listen to music, can I? The Chromebook has no local storage (at least not in the conventional sense).

2) Do I really want to trust one central Godlike server with my entire computing experience?

For one, this violates the basic principle of safe data: always have multiple copies of your stuff in multiple locations and on multiple forms of media. A 100-page report that took you and your team two months to prepare is only hypothetical until you actually have it in your hands at the moment when you need it.

Am I paranoid about this? Google seems to consist of a large group of clever people and they seem to have experience with safely handling gobs of data. Yes, but Microsoft Word is the industry’s most venerable and war-tested word processor, built and maintained by one of the industry’s largest and most capable tech companies. And it once destroyed a 12,000 word book chapter that I’d just spend the day completing.

I do like the idea that if I were to leave a Chromebook on an airport shuttle bus, I could land at my destination, stop at an electronics store on my way to a meeting, and have all of my apps and data back by the time the cab dropped me off at my meeting. And whoever finds my original notebook wouldn’t actually have any of my data.

Still: trust nobody. Turn your back on love. Trust only a second, backup copy of anything that’s valuable, on a piece of media that you have control of.

You want to talk about paranoia? Let’s start discussing the skeevy idea of a machine that works solely and exclusively through one company’s servers. The good news about Chrome OS’ approach to security is that a Chromebook represents a far less attractive target to malware than anything else going. The bad news is that you can summarize Google’s proud statement about this like this:

“We promise: Google is the only entity that can ever track every last thing you ever do on a Chromebook.”

Feel better now?

3) Why does a Chromebook even need to exist?

And that’s not a snarky question at all. Apple’s got the iPad, which is an affordable, flexible, and extremely reliable machine that can apparently already do everything a Chromebook can do.

Google’s also got Android. Android had a hell of a strong year in 2010 and 2011 will be even greater, as Google releases OS 3.0 and a dozen companies start making hardware that stretches Android from a pocket OS to a truly portable one.

Oh, and let’s not forget about those pesky Windows 7 netbooks. Chrome OS is truly just a host organism for the Chrome browser, and that’s a terrible commercial weakness. If I buy a $300 HP netbook and install the Chrome browser on it, I’ll have every tactile feature of a Chromebook at my disposal. And I can run Windows apps and games, besides.

It still won’t be as stable or secure as a Chromebook (or Android, or iOS) but that feature isn’t terribly visible to consumers as they browse the aisles of Best Buy.

Which brings up another challenge for Chrome OS notebooks: they look like notebooks.

Apple had a tactical advantage with the iPad. It was visibly a radical new device and that provoked consumers to approach it on its own terms. Google showed off a pilot-program Chromebook called the Cr-48. It was completely unbranded — it’ll never be sold as a retail item — but it looked absolutely identical to any Windows notebook on the market. It sported a big 12” screen, a full-sized keyboard, and a big trackpad.

It certainly won’t provoke a potential buyer to think differently and regard a Chromebook’s unique advantages with an open mind. People are going to think of it on bog-standard notebook PC terms; the sale might be lost as soon as he or she hears “ ... but it doesn’t have a DVD drive or even a hard drive, like this Windows notebook over here.”

Well, that’s the problem with a new idea. Apple couldn’t prove that there was a market for the iPad until there was something like the iPad on the market. And Google can’t prove that there are people ready to buy a 100% browser-based PC until the first units hit the market in 2011.

Google’s already playing it very smart: they’re going to immediately send out a limited number of Cr-48’s to real users so that they can kick the tires, take tight corners at reckless speeds, and otherwise give Google some real-world data about how well these things are working out in its current in-development form, and what needs to be done in the next six months.

(I’ll be getting mine shortly. A real review will have to wait until the first consumer Chromebooks come out, but I’ll be able to write up some first impressions. In the meantime, if you’re willing to do a little bowing and scraping, you can fill out a form and Google will consider sending you a Cr-48 of your very own.)

I can see the need for a machine like this. Many users are only interested in the Three R’s of computing: the Web (including social media networks), email, and Office.

(Yes, I know that none of those things start with the letter “R.” Apparently, you don’t know which letters the words “Writing” and “Arithmetic” begin with.)

A Chromebook is a good fit for those people. They don’t want a computer that works like a HAL-9000; they want one that works like a $25 toaster. They use it for a simple, narrow set of tasks and they expect it to work perfectly forever.

Chrome OS will also appeal to corporate IT departments. The Humans are always causing trouble for administrators. A machine in which the user is firmly at the bottom of the pyramid and completely subservient to the control of the server (and through the server, the admins) could become to corporate computing what the Blackberry became to corporate communications. That is, it’s not a consumer’s first personal choice, but it’s the machine that you’re issued along with your parking pass, your ID, and the mandatory video stressing that “Mad Men” is a fictional TV show set in a less-enlightened time and that both smoking and swatting a co-worker on the behind are seriously frowned upon.

I think the success or failure of Chrome OS will come down to cost. If the typical Chromebook costs as much as a conventional notebook, it’ll struggle. I can’t help but think about the experience with Google TV. It was a great demo and it’d have been an interesting $200 add-on box. At $399, though, it has to be held up to a higher standard and be the solution to some more serious problems before someone will click the Add To Cart button.

At the other end of the scale, though, a carrier-subsidized cheap-as-free notebook that’s as comfortable to use as a Windows machine might be some serious Tabasco.

Well, the coin’s in the air.

For now, Chrome OS underscores a basic principle that’s been ignored or scoffed at for far too long: putting control in the hands of the user isn’t a feature. It’s a means towards a feature, such as being able to run whatever window manager you like.

Google has achieved one feat that might have seemed miraculous a week ago: they’ve produced an OS and piece of hardware that’s more restrictive against the user than anything Apple’s ever sold.

But Google is offering something that a certain kind of user will regard as more important than personal power: stability, and consistency. A rock-solid kitchen appliance of reliability. They don’t know about maintenance and they don’t <em>want</em> to know about maintenance. Even a built-in OS feature that will update all of its software with one click of a button isn’t simple enough.

For those people, a Chrome OS notebook will seem like Google’s handing them a thick steak shrinkwrapped onto a little white styrofoam tray. Most companies just hand them a dull axe and point them towards a cow grazing in a field fifty yards away.



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