When Google pulled the lid off of Chrome OS last week, most of the tech world rejoiced. Our suspicions were correct! Death to the desktop OS! Yay Web 4.0! (or whichever version we’re on currently!).
But as I pored over the official Google post on Chrome, and then over the hundreds of articles providing instant analysis of the announcement, I realized just how scant the facts and details were. So, I called Google for some background and got some interesting answers. The company is still being cagey with specifics, but there's one thing for certain: death knells for Microsoft and Apple are exaggerated. Here are ten copmuting tasks that Chrome OS, as it is currently understood, won't do better than your traditional desktop PC.
Granted, Chrome OS is still little more than a twinkle in Google's eye. Details are scant, especially from Google themselves, and what it is and how it will work are two things still very much in development. But judging by what we do know now, Chrome will provide a very differfent experience than what most users are accustomed to currently. Here's how:
According to Google, absent will be the familiar file-handling schema of a traditional OS—-by which I mean folders and a desktop. As Google suggested in its blog post, these are vestiges of the pre-web era. Chrome OS and Chrome the browser will be one in the same, and everything you do on a Chrome-based machine will occur inside of the Chrome browser. The OS is the browser. So, forget the filesystem as you know it.
Instead, access to documents and files will probably look a lot like Google Docs does now, with storage of everything in "the cloud." You access them only through Web apps (finding them via an internal Google search, not through poking around a version of Windows Explorer or Finder). But, this raises a lot of questions: What happens when I'm offline? Will I lose all access to all of my files, or will a Google Gears-like interface exist for offline access? And if so, how will new local versions get re-synched to the cloud? But wait a minute, Google said no local file system for users' files! Confusing! We’ll just have to wait and see how they figure this out, but as of now, we know Chrome OS will not be based on a traditional files-and-folders desktop. So if the thought of losing that gives you the shakes, Chrome may not be for you.
There will be no third-party apps to install on Chrome OS-—well, not in the traditional sense, at least (seeing a pattern here?). Applications will exist on the Web and be run solely inside of the Chrome browser, which means every web app that already exists is also already a Chrome app. So, will you be able to run Photoshop on Chrome? You’ll certainly be able to run the webified ‘lite’ version already available on Photoshop.com. Whether or not the full version will ever be browser-based is completely up to Adobe (and the limits of current web-based programming languages), not Google. The same goes for iTunes, which it’s safe to assume won’t be headed to the browser any time soon. In its stead, I expect others to step up with web-based media management apps that will duplicate iTunes functionality and maybe even improve upon it.
But, there are some problems to consider here. Because apps exist in the browser, there will be no inherently common GUI to Chrome like we’re used to with traditional OSes. The way we open documents, the keyboard shortcuts, the look of the windows and tools could wildly from application to application. What’s more, your data will be scattered all over the place. In a traditional OS, I have my pictures folder, my music folder and my documents folder, and I can use whatever application I wish to open these files. On Chrome, I’ll presumably only have access to documents specific to each app. So, if I’m creating, say, a birthday invitation in Google Docs, how am I meant to insert a photo that’s managed by the Photoshop web app?
Of course, Google could (and almost certainly will) solve these problems--a formal web-app SDK will surely provide at least some semblance of GUI standards, and it's not too difficult to imagine a cloud-based "G-Drive" storage repository, accessible from every Chrome app. But the desktop app as we know it will not exist.
Don’t expect to be running Final Cut Pro, Maya, Pro Tools or other processor punishers on Chrome any time soon. With most of the computing power of a Web app actually residing on a server as opposed to the Chrome device itself, imagine how much bandwidth and time it would require to render a segment of video—never mind having to continuously upload and download multi-gigabyte files. It’s just not realistic. Well, Google says, netbooks aren’t designed for these kinds of tasks no matter what operating system you’re on. True. But, Chrome is only just starting out on the netbook. The company said in its own blog post that the OS would eventually make the leap to the desktop. And, people use desktops for a lot more than surfing the Web.
Google’s response to this dilemma is an interesting one, though one that’s still a long way off. It’s called Native Client, an open-source Google project that allows developers to run C and C++ code in the browser through a plug-in. Instead of having access to the sliver of processing power the browser normally gets to play with, Native Client gives web-based apps access to the full power of the user’s processor, paving the way for full-fledged photo and video editing on Chrome someday down the line.
Forget exterminating Nazi zombies in the all-new Wolfenstein game coming to the PC in August. With little more than a glorified browser at your fingertips, Chrome gaming will be relegated to little Flash (and soon HTML 5) diversions such as Bejewled and poker. I suppose some iPhone-quality games aren’t out of the question either. We may get some beefier 3D treats someday with the help of some future iteration of the Native Client plug-in, but for the foreseeable future you’ll need a Windows partition to get your game on. Then again, those feeble little netbooks aren’t really up to the task in the first place, are they?
Of course, a Web-based OS requires an Internet connection. Without one readily available, your new Chrome netbook will be a useless brick of plastic and silicon, right? Google’s current official response to this conundrum is essentially “But, how often are you not near an Internet connection?”
To a certain extent, Google is right. Between increasingly ubiquitous Wi-Fi hotspots, 3G data networks and wireless Internet on airplanes, web access is all around us. But hold on a second. You can’t count on having an Internet connection all the time. And, what about folks in developing countries, or rural areas in which 3G is non-existent and which the cable company could care less about? Sure, Google Gears allows you to work in the browser offline, but only in a limited capacity. To do anything useful, you’ll eventually need Web access.
This makes it a strong likelihood that the initial Chrome OS netbooks will be sold with a cellular data plan contract, like many netbooks are already.
Up to now, Google’s hasn’t had to stress too much about system-level headaches such as hardware compatibility, and while I expect a lot of device drivers will be supplied by Chrome's Linux undercarriage, it’s hard to imagine exactly how your iPhone, digital camera, printer, scanner, writing tablet, Bluetooth devices (you get the idea) will all tie seamlessly into a browser-based system. An iPhone or iPod might get mounted as a drive, but how will it sync and what will it be syncing to? A digital camera might call up Picasa in the browser, but what if I use Flickr instead? What are the chances my two-year-old wireless Lexmark printer will function? What happens when I try to play a DVD? Google insists it’s working hard on the issue of device drivers, but take it from Microsoft: It’s a horror show.
Broadband upload speeds, particularly for cable subscribers, are famously atrocious. For the majority of users who spend most of their online time downloading or streaming photos, music and videos, it’s not much of an issue. But what about when your media is going the other way?
I upload photos to my Flickr account in the dead of night, otherwise my broadband connection slows to such a crawl I can barely get anything else done. Uploading photos, working on Google Docs, downloading a large file and surfing the web all at the same time? Forget about it. Now, imagine you’re using Chrome and you’re constantly uploading and downloading files to and from the cloud. Upload speeds being what they are today pose a significant hurdle to multitasking on Chrome. And, let’s not forget that broadband providers have been experimenting with bandwidth caps recently. If all of your data resides online and you’re continuously pulling it down and pushing it back up again, imagine how expensive that will get.
When Gmail was still in beta (for the last six years, up until, fortuitously, the Chrome announcement), Google didn’t have much of a responsibility to the user. It’s a free service, and a beta one at that. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. If ever there was a Gmail outage (and I’ve experienced many), there wasn’t much you could do except wait around, read hundreds of tweets from users griping about the outage, and trust that Google was fixing the problem. Once I did actually send an email to Google during an outage, but I never heard back. I didn’t expect to.
Chrome OS is different, though. You think you feel stranded now when your email goes down? Imagine your entire computer, and all of your files and contacts are suddenly completely inaccessible. A “We’re Working On It” message is no longer going to suffice. Alongside Chrome, Google had better also launch 24/7 phone and email support.
I’ve written about Google and privacy in the past [http://www.popsci.com/grouse/article/2008-10/can-i-have-my-ssn-back], so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. But, with Chrome, the amount of personal info Google has access to is absolutely unprecedented. If you already use both Gmail and Google search, the company knows who you are, who you know and what kinds of sites you visit. If you use Google Maps, Calendar or Docs, the company knows where you are, where you’re going, what you’re doing and what you’re working on. By using Chrome, you’re tying all of this information into every single little thing you can imagine using a computer for. And these days, that’s just about everything. Scary.
A lot of folks took the announcement of Chrome as a direct swipe at Microsoft. Some couldn’t help but label the new OS a Windows killer. But, let’s calm down. First of all, I don’t think Chrome intends to replace Windows--at least not in the short term. I think it intends to snap up a rather small group of adventurous users who realize they don’t need a hulking desktop OS for the majority of their day-to-day computing tasks.
Secondly, Windows 7 has been specifically built to be lightweight with the next generation of netbooks in mind, and by the time Chrome surfaces, Windows 7 will have already been on the market for 9-12 months. Third, let us not forget the droves of people who returned Linux-based netbooks last year after taking them home and realizing they missed Windows. Never underestimate people’s fear of the unknown.
So, what’s Chrome? It’s something different, and to use it will require getting used to doing things very differently than you do now. If there’s one thing to take away from the announcement, it’s something Bob Sutor, IBM’s VP of Linux and Open Source said to me in a conversation earlier this week. “It brings into sharper focus the fact that much of the work people do today is on the web. But on the same token, it brings into sharp focus the fact that a lot of work people do is not on the Web.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.