What would computing look like if there was no Windows and no Mac, but only Chrome OS? An interesting thought, especially if you think about the fact how many loose ends Chrome OS has. So I disconnected my Windows mobile PC this week and went completely Chrome OS on my mobile PC.
There are some very prominent examples of products that have been envisioned at a time that simply was not ready for them. Remember streamlined cars from the 1930s? A more recent segment would be tablets that were really invented back in the early 2000s, but simply lacked the ecosystem that would have allowed them to thrive. The iPad can take advantage of capable hardware, much better batteries, wireless connectivity and display technology that was not available in 2000.
I wonder if Chrome OS will also be remembered as a product that was ahead of its time.
I recently wrote a column stating that Chrome OS is a shot in front of Microsoft’s bow and I still believe that. Over the past week, I kept my Windows 7 netbook at home and carried the Cr-48 Chromebook with me to see just how much sense this thing makes in every day life. The obvious hurdle is, right now, wireless connectivity, which is required despite the fact that Google said that it will enable offline document editing as well. However, if you use the Chrome browser as your OS surface, you are pretty much screwed if you do not have Internet access.
I solved this problem by using my Android G2 phone, which can serve as a wireless hotspot by default and deliver in most areas I travel 3 – 5 Mbps downlink speeds. T-Mobile has a 5 GB data limit for 4G (the connection slows thereafter), which is plenty for a smartphone, but will still give you bandwidth anxiety and you will not necessarily stream a lot of movies.
Google Docs is a good enough replacement for Microsoft’s Office suite, and I have begun to value the Evernote application, conceivably the best integrated application for Android/Chrome OS/iPhone available today. I subscribed to a free online storage service. I treated myself to some games. By now I am used to working with Chrome OS, despite some annoying shortcomings. In the end, there is only one major downside that would be prevent from taking this things along to report from the upcoming CES trade show. That would be the lack of Photoshop or another decent image editing application.
Workable, but annoying is the trackpad design. This one does not work for me and there needs to be some more engineering. Scrolling is clumsy, right clicks are clumsy and the overall exactness of clicks is terrible. However, given the fact that it is an experimental notebook with an early version of a cloud operating system, it is – if seen objectively – impressive that you could use it as the only notebook for some applications, if you wanted to. I am not aware of any other cloud OS that could do that for me.
My conclusion: Google has a lot of work to do, but Chrome OS makes a lot of sense and if Google does not shoot itself in the foot, it could light the way to how mainstream computing will look like 5 or 10 years from now.
Of course, that is my opinion. There are others who see this as a completely different scenario. Gmail creator Paul Bucheit recently tweeted that Chrome OS and Android will merge, which I find a far-fetched idea given the clear differences between Android and Chrome OS. Android runs an icon-based app surface on a smartphone and possibly tablets. Chrome OS runs a web browser. The difference here is that Android is an operating system for content consumption, but Chrome OS is developed to consume and create content. Besides writing emails and roughly editing my ringtones, I am not sure if I wanted to use Android for content creation.
You can also take issue with those rather forced “ten reasons why” articles that are growing all over the web lately. PC Magazine had an interesting piece describing why Android is better than Chrome OS, which is probably the best example yet that we are either too naïve to understand Chrome OS or that the OS is just ahead of its time. You can criticize Chrome for the need of wireless connectivity now – which will not be the case down the road for some applications – but then this is really an issue of network providers to make their networks more reliable. Data caps have been a huge problem, but have recently been pitched as cheaper ways to connect to data services – even if they are really ways to generate more revenues as soon as you are barreling past your limit. The problem are slow build outs of networks. You can hardly criticize Google for having the vision of an always connected device. The problem are carriers that are living in the past and not in the now.
There are questions whether Chrome is an app, or an OS. That may be a matter of perception as Chrome was never created to be just a browser. It was created to become the surface of an underlying OS – and what was clearly visible when the browser was launched in 2008 simply by an approach to maximize the content area. Anyone who thought that Google simply wanted to annoy Microsoft or Mozilla with Chrome, was, in fact, a bit naïve.
Sure Chrome only runs Web Apps, but then we had Windows in the past that only could only run Windows apps for a long time and we were happy with that. The traditional software is on its way to become a service and any browser will be able to run it in the not too distant future. Current web technologies provide enough room to create apps that may work just as well as our average local app. An OnLive recently showed that cloud gaming is not so much science fiction anymore. What would it take to run those games in a browser instead of your TV? Not that much.
Anywhere you look, there is an opportunity for cloud operating systems to evolve and Google happens to be the company that has a working version of its vision available – at least for 65,000 or so users who were lucky enough to get a Cr-48. It is an incredibly progressive project and a brave decision to give average users devices with early versions of the OS. Personally, I believe Microsoft should have been the company to pitch an experimental cloud OS and it is a shame that this has not been the case.
Whether Chrome OS will survive, whether Android is better or not and whether Chrome OS will merge with Android are the wrong questions as they probably do not matter to Google anyway. It is an experiment on a massive scale to test a possible future of a mass market operating system. What is true is the fact that the ecosystem is not ready for Chrome OS yet and that we may be stuck in our old days and not ready to understand why cloud computing would really make sense.
Realistically, Chrome OS may be way ahead of its time.
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