Chrome OS: What Is It Good For?

31 Comments

If Google (s goog) was looking for a warm welcome for its Chrome OS and the new Cr-48 laptops it’s currently giving away to select beta testers, well then, it was wrong. The actual hardware has received a reception colder than Scrooge’s heart. Folks at TechCrunch have given it a verbal lashing that would make a drill sergeant proud. For past three days, I’ve been using the Cr-48 and here are my impressions.

The Mini-Review

First, the hardware:

  • The boot-up is extremely fast, and the log-on process is smooth and speedy, as long as one has a Google Mail account. (Google Apps ID doesn’t quite work.)
  • The screen is great, but the graphic capabilities are pretty limited.
  • There is a single USB port and a flash memory card slot. Frankly, having lived with the old MacBook Air (s aapl) with a single USB port, I don’t see much of a problem.
  • The trackpad is awful.
  • I love the dedicated Search button and would love to see it on all computers.
  • The laptop picked up most of the commonly used USB peripherals. Both a Logitech (s logi) mouse and a Microsoft (s msft) optical mouse worked just fine, without need for special discovery or driver installs.

Second, the User Interface/Experience:

  • The Interface is rough around the edges, and what you see is essentially the Chrome web browser.
  • It takes too many cues from Microsoft Windows (s msft), which is understandable, considering they are going after the mainstream and enterprise market.
  • The OS needs better font support, and reminds me of some early Linux distributions.
  • The user experience expects us to come to the idea of using browser tabs instead of apps, a weird notion, but not that strange if you’ve used the Chrome browser as your primary browser and are used to cloud-based services.
  • If you use Google Chat and Google Tasks, then you easily understand the idea of “Panels,” a new feature inside Chrome OS that runs in small, easy-to-access panes at the bottom right of the browser.
  • Even the best web apps currently available at the Chrome Web Store are a work in progress.
  • The biggest challenge for Google’s Chrome OS is going to be fighting against many life-long habits of using a desktop OS.

Now for the Cloud-based Services:

  • Despite being severely underpowered, there’s one thing the device does very well: let you use Google apps, especially Google Docs, Gmail and other cloud services (from Google) without a problem.
  • The YouTube experience is marginal at best, and Netflix (s nflx) doesn’t work.
  • Most of your browser-based apps will work, but Adobe Flash (s adbe) on Chrome OS is like a toddler learning to crawl. It will be a long time before it gets to the maturity of Adobe on Windows platform. Adobe has already stated that it plans to improve its integrated Flash performance in Chrome OS, essentially calling it a “work-in-progress.”

Bottom line: Will I use Cr-48 or something like it as my primary computer? It would be tough for me –I admit I have a life-long habit of using a full desktop operating system — to make Chrome OS my primary computing experience. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep an open mind, but for now, it’s a no-go for me. My more portable, 2.13 GHz MacBook Air is the machine I like, and even as I spend a lot of time inside the browser, I prefer a desktop with the Chrome browser and raw power. Plus my Mac has Silverlight, which lets me play Netflix and use third-party, native apps such as Reeder.

As Google stated very clearly, this particular device isn’t going to be sold in the market; its partners are going to make devices that consumers can buy. I hope they do a better job and come up with more attractive hardware.

The real story to focus on is the ChromeOS, what it really means and whom it targets.

So let’s do that instead.

The Rise of the Web OS

The growth of Google has coincided with the shift to the web. Google is a company that has been a believer in networked computing from its very inception. Since 2004, an increasing amount of our focus and attention has been devoted to the browser and what we can do inside the browser. The so-called Web 2.0 concept only helped enhance the inside-the-browser experience, thus slowly replacing desktop as our primary focus of attention.

Thanks to new technologies, ample bandwidth and Moore’s Law, the concept of a web operating system has become a reality. The web isn’t really an OS in the classical sense of the word, but instead is a platform to do things: for making phone calls, playing games, writing documents, sending emails, instant messaging and even photo editing. These are some of the tasks some of us old fogeys still do on our desktop operating systems using desktop software, but slowly and surely that desktop era is coming to an end.

Google last week announced its much-awaited cloud OS, the Chrome OS, which is nothing more than just a browser running on a stripped down version of Linux to capitalize on the hardware features such as audio and video. In the end, Chrome is about doing things on the web, inside a browser. Apple, of course, has taken a different tack for its cloud OS. The iOS which powers iPhone, iPod touch and the iPad fosters the idea of using small chunks of code for doing specialized tasks and embedding the browser inside these apps.

In a blog post this past week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt wrote:

So we’ve gone from a world where we had reliable disks and unreliable networks, to a world where we have reliable networks and basically no disks. Architecturally that’s a huge change—and with HTML5 it is now finally possible to build the kind of powerful apps that you take for granted on a PC or a Macintosh on top of a browser platform. You can build everything that you used to mix and match with client software—taking full advantage of the capacity of the web.

The Enterprise

As a consumer, one is going to find Chrome OS very limiting, especially since have some pre-conceived notions about what a personal computer is supposed to do. In addition, the availability of smartphones and tablets makes Chrome OS less necessary form a consumer standpoint because they are more consumer-friendly and quite capable devices.

Google’s own Android OS is already in front of the consumers (in form of phones and tablets). It will be sometime next year when the first Chrome OS devices will come to the market, and it won’t be until end of 2011 when (or if) Chrome OS become a viable option in the market place. By then, as I wrote earlier, “who knows where Android will be?” If the early popularity of tablets is any indication, consumer computing is moving towards the tablet form-factor and for Android – that is indeed a good thing.

In comparison, Chrome OS is ideally suited for business environments that need lots of low-cost computers designed to do certain specific tasks cheaply and without much maintenance. Rolling out centrally managed apps minus security problems and maintenance hassles has been the Holy Grail for corporate computing. Chrome OS and HTML5-based web apps that run inside the browser are a perfect solution, as I argued in my earlier post.

Our GigaOM Pro analyst David Card agreed in his research note (subscription required):

Chrome OS also suffers from awkward positioning, both externally to developers and potential customers, and internally within Google’s own product line-up. While it’s true that PCs serve both companies and consumers, the value of the Network Computer premise appeals only to enterprise IT managers. Its manageability and simplified functionality play best in applications like airline reservations, point-of-sale terminals and ATMs, or in limited-application mobile devices used in shipping and store inventory management. Yet at least for now, app stores are purely consumer offerings. The apps Google showed last week all came from media companies (New York Times, NPR, Sports Illustrated), Electronic Arts and Amazon.

Google will be best suited to focus Chrome OS and all its energies on business buyers — call centers, retail outlets and airlines to start with — and forget about the consumers.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub. req.):

31 Comments

ace

Windows I think still the easiest OS, Linux and Mac better in security. Chrome?? Never heard about its uniqueness than the others.

John Z

The cr-48 is a machine for beta testers of Chrome OS. Dwelling on the hardware is pointless, since it will never be sold.

I have always thought cloud computing was a great idea. It’s been around before, but failed because the technology wasn’t there. 15 year later, it is.

So I’ve been using Chrome OS on the cr-48 for a week now. At first, it felt a little confining, but that was only true given the desktop mindset I have. What I have found is that there is nothing I regularly do that I can’t do in the cloud, up to and including developing wireframes as an Interaction Designer.

I think this is going to work out well for Google.

Luis Garcia

I see the Chrome OS as something aimed at people who don’t really take advantage of all the features of their computers – for the most part, they just want to go online and occasionally, they want to play a game or edit a document.

Your suggestion that business could also use Chrome OS intrigues me too. I see how it can potentially be cheaper than buying several OS and office suite licenses, but at the same time, many companies I know have their own mail servers and other network infrastructure already in place. I wonder if Chrome OS will play well with these companies’ servers. Of course, that problem is something the system administrators will have to worry about, not me.

onecallednick

I disagree, chrome os is perfect for the consumer. They just need netflix support and with that everything I do will be doable on chrome os at a fraction of the cost of your oh-so-pretty macbook air.
Focusing on business adoption is stupid; every major advancement in computer technology has been driven by consumer demand. Android and iOS are the best things to happen to mobile and had NO business support for years. Devoting to business support is a sure death sentence for Chrome OS. But you wouldn’t mind, you already thought chrome OS should die, because android was so wonderful. Android, the consumer-driven masterpiece.

onecallednick

Also how is a netbook or notebook form factor less consumer friendly than a tablet or smartphone, a form factor still quite unfamiliar to the majority of americans who still haven’t bought one yet?

onecallednick

You should’ve seen my 55 and 67 year old parents struggle with their new Galaxy S’s.

deano

The biggest failure of the CR-48 is that it’s largely being talked up in the US, where it is most vulnerable to being an “almost win” for too many different categories of user – corporate IT shops, consumer technophobes, education, etc. Also, the US has one of the most inconsistent internet infrastructures in the world, and is trending to having one of the most expensive/Mb over time.

Where this really shines is wherever there is a reliable ISP/mobile infrastructure. A CR-48 on Docomo, for example, makes much more sense than a VZW rollout at this stage. Just add a picture of hello kitty to the home screen, done! ;) Seriously, though, this looks like a “Cloud OLPC” to me, in many positive ways…

John Furrier

Om: great review. I am using one as well and was going to write a review but I’ll just link to your article.

I feel the same way. This is not about what this device is but what it represents about the web os model.

Mark Seydel

My take on Chrome OS for the “consumer” is this:

I have many friends/acquaintances who spend almost all of their computing time on the web and look at me like I’m a bit crazy when I use the terms Linux, USB Flash Drive, Dual Core, etc. Let’s face and state the fact that many consumers are computer challenged and only know the Internet. These people seem to want an inexpensive way to spout about their personal lives on the likes of Facebook, Twitter.

For these people ChromeOS net-books are a win-win.

Chris K

Chrome can win if:

A) it lowers costs. Either the notebook gets cheaper or the software does or the support costs do.

and/or

B) reduces the hassles of current computing ala the iPad.

For the latter, if you don’t have to worry about viruses and your data is always backed up and it boots up quick and you don’t see any driver problems/hassles and your data is well organized and reliability is increased along with battery life then its a big win. I see as aimed at similar targets the iPad is aimed at in a different way. But both devices gain from re-thinking the way things are done and from the lack of previous OS baggage.

IN the former it remains to be seen how much costs can come down. Chrome OS notebooks would probably rock with the specs of an 11″ Macbook Air without the expensive thin aluminum body, SSD and Apple profit margin.

Can they get that config down to $500 or cheaper?

IF combined with ease of use then you can have a winner I would think thought not for all usage cases.

person

the best thing i feel about having an OS on your USB is that even if the computer is not yours, you can still use it to browse the web, this was how i used Jolicloud, the bad thing though is that you have to login to the web, why should i… can’t there be a way to use the web without a logging in?

Ron

The Chrome OS advantage is heavily tied to the nature of the input device controlling it, meaning in this case a full size keyboard with traditional tactile feedback. It’s not enterprise vs. consumer, but rather productivity vs. consumption that will drive the need for Chrome OS. You’re not in an enterprise, yet I suspect you’d be hard pressed to give up your MacBook Air — even though you have your pick of phones and tablets.

mlezz666

Once matured it will make perfect sense for small and medium business. May be even for big enterprises. I have seen many man days wasted just because hardware goes down. Admins have system images and ghost images and what not but nothing will work like the way Chrome would and should work. Replace the hardware and everything is up and ready to use as soon as you login.
Also data security can be handled better by getting rid of external hard drives and USB support.
Personally I dont see myself using chrome at home but can see most of the employees of a big enterprise being able to do all their daily work on a chrome OS.

Seth Weintraub

For Google Apps to work, you need to be on the “new infrastructure”. Your Admin can do this fairly easily or it will happen over the next few months automatically. I’ve been able to login using my apps account and it works just like it should.

Hudey

I wholeheartedly disagree. A mature Chrome OS would be PERFECT for every member of my family who is not a “computer person.” My mom just wants to see photos, play simple browser games, and keep in touch through Gmail. My grandma would like the same. My in-laws are not heavy computer users – more people that only need a browser for music, photos, Facebook, and Google Docs to write some school papers.

You might be right that Chrome OS is a good fit for IT, but it is also good for anyone that needs a computer experience but doesn’t have a computer background. These are the family members that come to me when they have a virus or can’t get Office to open a document. For them, Chrome OS is amazing – no OS updates, no virus scanners, no file backups, no disk defrags, no crazy malware infestations that require a reformat and reinstall. This is all perfect for someone who just needs a simple computer experience and don’t want the complexity of Windows, OSX, or (geez) desktop Linux.

The problem with Google sending these laptops out to the media is that the media are heavy computer users. I think they should be handing them out to everyday Joes in front of Target and WalMart and see what kind of reaction they get. Those are the white collar people who paint houses all day, and just want to come home and read some news, play a game, and connect on Facebook. For that huge segment of the population Chrome OS could be a godsend.

Dylan Raines

I think this a very exciting new product coming but I doubt I will look to buy until at least a year after it is released to the public. That’s pretty much my policy with any new product to wait until many of the bugs that are discovered by mass use are worked out.

Lucian Armasu

I agree, Chrome OS should be gold for enterprises, and has high potential to succeed – in the consumer market, we’ll see.

Om Malik

Thanks for the comment. I think it would be interesting to see how this plays out. If the devices are cheap enough and large enterprises adopt these machines, Google might have something going for it. Otherwise, it still has Android ;-)

jigarme

In case if you are wondering whats the hardware configuration for Cr48, its a basic hardware. goo.gl/ZOJRG

Now, imagine this same piece of software running on a quad core, 4 gig machine!

Patrick Thornton

A couple of thoughts:

1) Why doesn’t Google just pull an Apple and ship with Flash off by default? Instead, Google should ship with hardware accelerated h.264 support and push people towards HTML5. Flash isn’t efficient on platforms that Adobe has worked heavily on. Adobe has ignored Linux for years, and Flash really isn’t worth relying on. The whole Chrome OS experience would be faster and more energy efficient without Flash, and going with faster hardware only lowers the value proposition. Let’s say there were Chrome OS computers that had Core 2 Duo chips, better graphics cards, etc. Not only would the cost of the machine be much higher and into OS X and Windows territory, but the device would still not run as well because Flash isn’t nearly as mature for Linux as it is for the two other major OSes. If the iPhone 4 running at somewhere around 750mhz can do 720p video at 30 fps, people are going to expect a better video experience from Chrome OS laptops.

2) I think you’re right that this could be a big hit for the enterprise market, especially as more companies embrace cloud computing. A lot of money and time could be saved by switching to a model like Chrome OS. I can also see Chrome OS being popular as an extra machine in a person’s house. Maybe have one heavy OS like OS X and then have a few tablets or Chrome OS machines for other people to use when they aren’t doing work that requires the heavy OS. But this only works if Chrome OS machines are pretty cheap, and bumping up the hardware specs to work better with Flash doesn’t make sense.

Andrex

Why would they ship with hardware accelerated H.264 when they’re pushing WebM? If anything they should strip out both Flash and H.264, but they won’t.

ronald

My rule of thumb is:
Every time a company aligns its strategy based on CIO, CTO, IT managers input, it’s going to be marginalized. This history repeats itself from Mainframes over Minis, Workstations, PCs to ….
IT managers don’t think about Information or Context, they think about driven the cost of IT administration down. Which business users(not Managers) do not care about that much. They need to get a job done, which is more and more is about processing Information in a given Context in a given time frame. Which IT doesn’t understand, since they think about categories. So the users setup their own shop, since they require more flexibility.

ronald

When was the last time you said not so nice words to your iPad,OSX, Win7, Linux machine because of boot times? Viruses, spam, …. I stopped running spam assassin since it’s not worth the CPU time. I get less spam than in my Google account, for example. One just has to understand, points, data and information.

But when was the last time you drowned in the equivalent data like this. Users are already exposed to that kind of mess (email, twitter, social, search, local, none local, calendars,…). I think that’s the problem of tomorrow, not spam , nor boot times or admin cost, that’s yesterdays/maybe todays problem.

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