Google Chrome OS is here - sort of. This week, Google was kind of enough to give the world a sneak peek at its desktop operating system. And after months of speculation (and more than a few bogus screenshot galleries), I can finally say that I've seen the future... and it's not Chrome OS.
When news of the existence of a Google OS project first leaked out, I gave it an ice cube's chance in hell of succeeding. Now, after watching a sometimes touchy-sounding crew from Google's headquarters walk us through the ins and outs of the Chrome OS, I'm more convinced than ever that my original assessment was right on the money.
Fatal flaw 1: The Linux foundation
First, there's the core architecture. A derivative of Linux, the Chrome OS builds on Linus Torvald's popular open-source foundation to create a lightweight, web-oriented desktop environment. However, it also inherits that platform's many warts, including inconsistent hardware compatibility.
From power management to display support, Linux has long been a minefield of buggy code and half-baked device driver implementations. Google recognises this fact and, in a page taken from the Apple Macintosh handbook, has taken the draconian measure of allowing the Chrome OS to be distributed exclusively on a series of as-yet-undisclosed netbook-like devices.
It's a move born of desperation. Google knows it can't possibly establish a viable hardware ecosystem and still meet its self-imposed release deadline of mid-2010. So rather than do the hard work of courting device vendors and building certification processes, Google is taking the easy way out by micromanaging which systems will be allowed to ship with the Chrome OS and then dumping responsibility for the rest of the ecosystem on to the open-source community.
Fatal flaw 2: The web user interface
Then there's the user interface. Google looks at the world through the prism of a web page. So it comes as no surprise that the primary interface to the Chrome OS is ... Chrome, as in the Google browser. Unlike a traditional OS, there's no desktop. The 'applications' running under the Chrome OS are really just interactive web pages, with the Chrome browser's tabs serving to separate and organise them visually on the screen.
Basic configuration tasks, such as defining Wi-Fi settings, are handled via Chrome OS-hosted pop-up windows, while a simple status bar-like strip at the top of the display informs you about battery life, connectivity status and so on.
Sadly, none of the above UI constructs is particularly original or compelling. The tabbed interface and 'dockable' favourites are clearly derivative of Mac OS X and/or Windows (depending on whom you ask), as are the status icons and pull-down applications menu.
In fact, nothing about the Chrome OS UI jumps out as innovative. Rather, it simply replaces one set of metaphors (Start menu, taskbar/Dock, system tray) with a bunch of webified equivalents. And although I can certainly appreciate the advantages of doing away with those heavy legacy OS windowing layers - web content is lighterweight and easier to isolate from a security standpoint - it also serves to limit the environment's overall utility.
The world won't buy an inflexible OS
And that's where I believe the Chrome OS ultimately fails. In its effort to pare the traditional OS model down to the bone, Google has thrown out the one characteristic that made Windows and, to a lesser extent, Mac OS X and full-blown Linux successful: flexibility.
Simply put, the Chrome OS is too narrow. It assumes that the world is ready to give up the traditional personal computing paradigm and live full-time in the cloud. In reality, most users prefer a hybrid existence, with some of their data and applications stored locally, and others - typically the freebies, such as Gmail - hosted online.
Perhaps the easiest way to put the Chrome OS into context is by comparing it to the OS it's designed to supplant: Microsoft Windows. Like the Chrome OS, Windows lets you boot your system, surf the web and manage your data. Unlike the Chrome OS, Windows also lets you run rich, local applications and services - and do so on the hardware of your choosing.
Don't forget that Google's plans for acceptable hardware to run the Chrome OS is very limiting. No hard drives or even DVD drives; only solid-state drives. That may reduce power usage and speed up boot time (as if that was really an issue), but it also means you can't run your own apps, or store and access data, when you don't have a live internet connection. Plus, the supported laptops are only netbook-size laptops, with low-power CPUs that won't be all that capable. Sure, Google says you can use a PC or Mac for that stuff, and Google is right: you will. Why you would want a web-only appliance as well is not so easy to answer.
The bottom line is that while there is virtually nothing that you'll be able to do with the Chrome OS that you won't be able to do equally well with Windows, there are literally millions of things that you can do with Windows today that you'll probably never be able to do with the Chrome OS.
So don't be surprised when you start hearing about early Chrome OS adopters trying to reformat their systems with Windows 7 Starter Edition. After all, people are easily distracted, and the Chrome OS already bores me to death.