Hot on the heels of the very successful Android mobile phone operating system from Google comes ChromeOS. The bastard off-spring of an operating system and a browser it’s certainly something different, and given that it’s less than a year old and the hardware it’s running on really is bare bones it’s still quite hard to pin down if it’s going to be just a failed experiment like Wave or something more compelling that makes Apple and Microsoft push their primary operating systems even further.
ChromeOS is essentially the Chromium browser (the fully Open Source version of Google’s Chrome browser) running on a heavily customized and optimized Linux shell – Google hope that very few people will ever see what’s behind the browser windows.
The first most of the world has seen is ChromeOS running on the Pilot program laptop – the CR-48 (an unstable isotope of Chromium, and possible a joke at Apple’s expense – the iPad internal codename was K48). It’s an interesting mix of hardware in a shell that’s reminiscent of a contemporary MacBook. The bad are the VGA connector (rather than DVI or HDMI) and a truly horrible trackpad. The good are the built-in 3G wireless (the pilot program comes with 2 years of free Verizon data, only 100MB/mo but not to be sneezed at)., great battery life and the keyboard.
It’s tough to asses ChromeOS independently of the hardware it’s running on, but the performance of this strange piece of hardware is very good. Startup to usable (eg being able to send an email) is about 10 seconds. Shutdown to sleep is virtually instant. The keyboard is a little strange, with the Caps Lock key replaced with a “search” button, and where you expect to find the function keys some dedicated, browser centric buttons – back, forward, refresh, full screen, next window; and then brightness and volume controls. With the unusual layout the only thing I noticed was no quick key combinations to get to start/end of a line or top/bottom of a document (or page up/down) but I’m sure that could be a simple tweak.
With only a single USB connection it’s a little disappointing that the built in Bluetooth capabilities are not exposed in the OS – no way to pair a headset or a mouse. I was able to use a USB mouse with the laptop, but my USB headset wasn’t recognized. The video camera is what you’d expect on a fairly low-end laptop.
But… we don’t really care about the hardware. Is ChromeOS going to be a game changer, or just an interesting but ultimately doomed experiment?
After a few days with it, I still can’t tell for sure. There are some things it does really well. And there are some things that drive me insane and have me reaching for my Windows 7 powered MacBook Pro.
The good is, quite simply, the web. It’s a great browsing experience, with nothing to distract you. Multiple tabs, and multiple windows and quick and easy to find your way around.
The bad is… well, ironically, the web. Because ChromeOS is essentially an OS with a Browser for the GUI and no native apps as such you are limited to what you can do in a browser.
Normally while writing this I would have had
- a couple of tabs running. Well, that worked fine.
- music – usually VLC tuned to a DI.fm station. That’s a problem. No VLC (or any standalone music player). I found the Chrome Radio Player extension which does stream DI.fm… but only on Windows, Mac or Linux and only if you have installed VLC or Windows Media Player. Luckily I found a Pandora extension
- something to manipulate images. Well, kinda. No MS Paint here. You have to find the image you want on the web, and manipulate it in the cloud. There’s no local storage for you to save your artwork away to upload to the blog later.
- An IM client. Digsby by choice. It lets me chat on MSN, GTalk, Facebook Chat, as well as keep up with Twitter and Facebook. So far I’ve not found a good IM equivalent (eBuddy has promise but not a patch on Digsby). Chromed Bird is a nice extension for Twitter though.
- Email notifications to interrupt me. Luckily there are lots of Gmail notifiers, and I found one that talks to Exchange, but doesn’t seem to like staying logged in. Close but not quite perfect.
- An app to write this post in. Windows Live Writer or even Outlook. At least Posterous has a web interface so I could write this.
At the end of the day the frustration comes from the lack of real utility apps – no IM, no music player; the lack of local storage and the reliance on the cloud for everything – you can’t even log in without a web connection, and what happens if you want to draft an email on a plane or at a retreat with no Wifi or Verizon coverage?
I think that ChromeOS certain will move the bar in terms of battery life and performance, and for many people it will be a useful web-centric environment for checking Facebook and webmail, but in order for it to make a real dent there needs to be a lot of work solving the problems that “real” OSes have made appear simple… an app framework that goes beyond bookmarks to web pages and some extensions that, so far, are a little rough round the edges. Oh, and fixing the app store so it’s clear if apps work on ChromeOS or only really work in Chrome running on a real operating system.