Computers and their software today are too complicated, and users are increasingly looking at iPads and cloud-based services such as Google Docs to handle the basics that most of us stick to: document editing, photo management, emailing, web browsing and the like.
Running Office on a PC or Mac is beyond overkill for most people. Google proposes we do away with the PC altogether, at least part of the time, and replace it with Google's cloud-based laptop, an appliance in which the Chrome browser serves as operating system. With the Chrome OS all actions occur in the browser and the cloud.
Google announced Chrome OS in July 2009, formally introduced it 13 months ago, and then went silent. Last week, it re-introduced Chrome OS and this time gave an ETA for the real thing: mid-2011.
It also distributed prototype "Chromebook" laptops to people like me for ongoing testing of what Google CEO Eric Schmidt said would be an alternative to both Windows and Mac OS X. I've now had some quality time with that laptop, its Chrome OS, and the early apps available for the platform.
Chrome OS could be an option for grandmas and office drones: people who do very basic tasks, have a single email account, don't often share documents and data with other applications, don't use professional features such as revisions tracking when editing documents and work with just forms.
At this stage, the web apps available for web browsers such as Chrome OS, including Microsoft Office Web Apps, Google Docs, and the first apps available at Google's new Chrome Web Store, are rudimentary at best. And they don't play well with each other.
Unless Google and others succeed in developing really compelling web apps that also operate with the rest of the web, I believe the concept of a cloud laptop will fail. Yes, Office and many other apps are way too complicated, but Chrome apps are today way too simplistic and limited.
I would point Google and Chrome developers to the apps you see on the iPad as examples of a better balance between simplicity and capability, where sophistication is not sacrificed.
It's clear that Google still has a long way to go to make Chrome OS viable. Six months out from formal rollout, the operating system and the apps are in no way ready for prime time. I'm frankly surprised how primitive it all is half a year away from launch, but Google did warn that it has work to do.
Maybe there's a lot going on behind the scenes that will quckly come together to make Chrome OS worth considering when it is formally released. Anyhow, keep Chrome OS' early nature in mind. The prototype laptops, for example, aren't even running a beta version of the Chrome 9 browser that they'll ship with, but instead use a version of today's Chrome 8 browser.
The Chrome OS experience
The Chrome browser is very spare, following the general Google strategy of eliminating clutter. What you get is simply the Chrome browser as your operating system. Your "desktop" is merely a browser tab with the icons of the apps you've installed, and any app you open is just a web page in a browser tab.
You won't see many floating windows or dialog boxes. The available on-screen controls are very simple: Back, Forward, Refresh, Add to Favorites and Settings. You can also add a Home button to the on-screen controls, an option that is turned off by default. Additionally, there's a Search key on the laptop, and that's it.
At first, it's disconcerting to do work entirely in a browser, I kept wanting to go to the equivalent of the Mac OS X Dock or Windows Start menu to access my apps and web page favorites. Instead, you open a new tab to get your "home screen" equivalent each and every time you want to get to your apps. You also need to open a new tab to get to the menu to see your bookmarks. It's more work to switch tasks in Chrome OS than in Windows or Mac OS X because there's no quick-access mechanism yet.
You'll find basic interface controls in the Chrome OS, such as for the default font size for web pages. On any web page you're viewing, you can zoom in the usual way, by pressing Ctrl-+.
But forget about a customised user interface or the ability to add fonts, desktop backgrounds and the like, at least in this early version. It's a spare, generic experience. Aesthetically, Google's vision of cloud computing is not personal computing. You can apply Chrome browser themes from the Web Store, but they're ugly.
There is local storage on the Chromebook, but there's no equivalent of a file system, so don't expect drive icons or folders. If you try to download a file, it's placed in a floating window called Downloads that acts like a folder for web apps. You can upload files from that "folder" into those apps when you click their Browse for File buttons. This upload/download via a scratch space also is time-consuming compared to the drag-and-drop and open-in-app functionality we're used to on desktops and smartphones.
If you want to print from a Chromebook, you have to use Google's forthcoming CloudPrint service, which will work with printers designed to use it and with printers connected to a Windows, Mac OS X or Linux PC (using the PC as a waystation), similar in approach to Apple's disappointingly limited printing capability in iOS 4.2.
Right now, CloudPrint works only via Windows PCs, after an amazingly confusing and complicated install process. I couldn't get it to work from a Windows XP virtual machine on my Mac, but InfoWorld Editor in Chief Eric Knorr did get it to work from his XP laptop. But we can't test what the direct printing is like yet.
Google has bragged that Chrome OS is really fast and that Chromebooks would turn on or awaken in just a few seconds. Both statements are true, but the operating system is overall much slower to use because it lacks the interoperability that desktop and mobile operating systems provide. I turn on my computer once a day, so saving a couple minutes of boot time is meaningless.
What is meaningful is all the extra time that the Chrome approach takes to switch among resources and work with files, I do those all day long. Plus, my MacBook Pro and iPad both awaken in just seconds from sleep mode, so a Chromebook has no advantage there.
I'd gladly lose the faster bootup for faster operations. Operational speed matters much more than boot speed.