Chrome OS promising, but it’s more for the future

It won’t be ready for the general public for another year, but the sneak preview of the Google Chrome OS is generating quite a buzz.

It may be a Windows-killer, some claim. It’ll put Linux on the map, say others. It’ll be a fiasco, say still more pundits. So far, nobody’s neutral.

Google Chrome, built from the Debian GNU/Linux operating system (which I’ve always liked), is designed for the ultralight, ultracheap netbooks that are not really built for much more than Web browsing and lightweight office work. And the Chrome system is really little more than a front end for “cloud computing” — the use of online applications and storage.

According to the Google blog:

… it’s all about the web. All apps are web apps. The entire experience takes place within the browser and there are no conventional desktop applications. This means users do not have to deal with installing, managing and updating programs …

That in itself is enough to really stir the pudding in the computer world.

I guess that’s the future of computing, and it stands to reason that one may not even need a hard drive in the future. That’s the trend I’m seeing carried out to its logical conclusion, though it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I’ve fooled around some with online applications, such as Google Docs. While they’re OK, I have trepidations about using these for everything. I’ve also played with bubbl.us, an online mind mapping program. While these concepts are great for portability — you can access your stuff from any computer without even a thumb drive. I’d rather keep my documents on hard drive. I’m even chary about backing them up online, and I like a lot more choice about what applications I do use. But from what I’ve read, the Google Chrome system throws you right into the future.

Although InfoWorld’s Randall Kennedy says Google’s Chrome OS will be a big failure, Robert Scoble thinks it’s just ahead of its time:

… what about my son who is in high school? By the time Chrome OS comes along in big numbers he’ll be in college. Why take a $1,000 computer to class? Couldn’t he do everything he needs to do on a low-cost computer that’s lightweight, replaceable, uses low power, and just uses the web? Absolutely. InfoWorld is making assumptions that the world is going to stay the same. That simply is NOT true … what will run on these new devices? A heavyweight OS like Windows 7 that takes me 40 seconds to boot up and does a ton of stuff I really don’t need, or a new OS that just has Google Chrome as its centerpiece?”

Even with nothing but a Web browser? Scoble says this:

… hey, I just wrote this post on Google Chrome while sitting listening to Marc Benioff at the TechCrunch Real Time Crunchup. I have not seen a single thing demonstrated on stage yet that won’t run on Google Chrome OS … this is a winner, but on a new field …

I may download the Chrome OS and give it a shot, though I’m not all that enthused about it. Since it’s a front end with little more than a graphic user interface, a few core programs, and the Chrome browser, why does the download weigh in at around three gigabytes?

Out of the box, the download on my current Linux operating system is a tick over 700 megabytes. And that includes all the programs that make the computer a self-contained one. You can get surprisingly complete Linux distributions on a 100-megabyte download.

Still, I’m intrigued by this system, and hope it is adopted early and often. There’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Linux, and the Chrome OS may finally dissolve the perception that Linux is too busy being geeky to be useful.

Now, understand that none of this is carved in granite, or even in bologna. This sneak preview is available in source code format, and it’ll be a while before the final, battle-ready version is ready. In the interim, those who grabbed the download are essentially beta testers. Run it, crash it, make note of what you did, and report back to the developers.

The new operating system still begs the question: What will it do with Microsoft’s death grip on the PC market?

Taking the pundits’ comments and working the middle ground, the answer is not a lot. TechCrunch writer M. G. Siegler suggests Chrome will nibble into the bottom end of the Microsoft market — the netbooks, the cheap computers. But until Windows 7 was released, Microsoft had conceded that end of the market. Most netbooks came with some form of Linux preloaded, while a few had Windows XP. Part of the game plan behind Windows 7 (which I’m not going to review; I’m more interested in open-source software) was to recapture some of the netbook users, and by most accounts the new Windows is one of the best systems Microsoft has ever produced.

Siegler writes:

… Google’s positioning for Chrome OS reads like a page out of Apple’s playbook, only from the opposite direction … Apple, of course, takes the opposite approach, targeting the high end of the market with their high-quality and high-margin machines. If Google is successful with its Chrome OS netbooks (let’s call them ChromeBooks), what we could see is the squeezing of Microsoft, an idea I first laid out a month ago. With attacks from the top and bottom, Windows will be relegated to the middle. And ultimately, if Google has its way, marginalized …

Stay tuned.

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