Chrome OS is Here: Some Assembly Required

The big news of the week: Google Chrome OS is out in the wild. Sort of. If you're willing to roll up your sleeves a bit and do some work, you can get your hands on Google Chrome OS, but it's not quite ready for everybody just yet.

Google finally unveiled its Chrome OS today in one of the most widely covered announcements since Apple released something iPod-ish. Eager users are able to get their hands on the source but like a kid on Christmas, those toys need quite a bit of assembly before they’ll be any fun at all.

The disappointment levels must have been pretty high today when Google announced that the actual Chrome OS wouldn’t be debuting until “late 2010,” and only on specific hardware. Of course, that’s the official release. Judging by the level of interest, unofficial builds of Chrome OS should be popping up all over the place long before Christmas 2010.

Naturally, I’ve watched Google’s entry into the desktop Linux market with quite a bit of interest, since I work with one of the other Linux distros that is aiming for the desktop market as well.

But my main interest, in terms of this column, is the question of making Linux essentially an underpinning for a rather good browser. Microsoft went and bundled the browser with the OS to keep its hold on the desktop market, Google is bundling the OS with the browser to try to get its share.

Some question whether Google’s entry into the desktop market is a good or a bad thing for Linux, I say it’s probably a mixed bag. Google’s code release today is all good, in my opinion. How they work with the rest of the community from here on out will determine the rest.

A Complicated Process

Being a generally curious sort, I wandered over to the Chromium.org site to see just how much elbow grease would be involved in whacking together a build of Google OS for my personal observation. Google is to be commended on the detailed instructions provided for building a copy. But couldn’t they have gone ahead and just put out a VMware image for lazy folks like me? I guess that wouldn’t have been as sporting.

It is pleasing that that Google has build instructions for openSUSE, Fedora, and others. If you poke around the Net a bit, you’ll also find some VMware/VirtualBox images making the rounds already as well. No doubt they’ll be turning up on DistroWatch shortly.

I was able to get a build, but the only thing available was… Chrome. In full-screen glory. But just Chrome. Needless to say this wasn’t a major source of excitement.

Making the Browser the Platform

Having looked at some of the videos and mockups, though, it’s been easy to get a pretty good idea of what the full-blown Chrome experience will be like. If you’re happy using one Web-based application at a time (or at least, per tab) then Chrome might be the answer. For power users, this is going to be rather underwhelming.

One thing is reassuring about what we’ve heard about Chrome today, though: Google isn’t envisioning a Web that is solely dominated by Google. The company demo’ed other sites working in Chrome OS, which is a good acknowledgment that they’ll need to support competing Web applications in Chrome. Good news for people who prefer another online office suite, for example, to Google’s.

The tab-based interface works tolerably well for Web browsers, but I’m unsure that it’s the way to go for the entire desktop environment. Some of us like seeing more than one application at time when working at the computer. Luddites though we may be for not embracing the wild wonders of Web-only applications.

For many users, using Google Chrome as a primary computer seems like it would be hard, unless your computing needs are very, very limited. However, using something like Chrome on a secondary computer reserved for the road or something like that is a distinct possibility. Even though Web applications have made huge strides, they’re not ready to replace all the desktop applications that we depend on now. The Web may be the platform of the future, but to borrow a phrase — 2010 is not the year of the Web-based desktop.

Of course, Google doesn’t need to please the power users with Chrome. That’s not what netbooks are about. Looking at the Chrome experience from the perspective of a light computer user, Chrome might be quite usable indeed. Netbooks aren’t designed to handle a multitude of applications all at once, so a browser-only motif might be quite suitable.

Throw it all on the Web?

Even assuming that the Web browser is a rich enough platform to satisfy all of my desktop application urges, the plan to rely on Internet-storage of data is a big alarm bell for me. The network is not at a stage that having my data living in the cloud is something I could feel remotely comfortable with as a primary storage platform. As I’ve written about before, Google hasn’t been able to keep five nines of uptime with GMail — why would anyone be willing to take the same gamble with all their data?

Again, this may not be important if Chrome is only a back-up machine, but I’d be very wary of a primary desktop that relies entirely on network storage.

Then there’s the little matter of privacy and control of data. I don’t get quite as frothy as some folks when worrying about the “cloud” holding my data — but I won’t say there’s no cause for concern. It’s a good thing that this thing is about a year out: Google has plenty of time to address not only the technical concerns of Internet-stored data, but also the social and legal concerns as well. Those might be a bit tougher to address than the technical worries.

All of this isn’t to say that I dislike Chrome OS so far or that it’s doomed to failure. Google will more than likely find at least a decent niche of users willing and eager to embrace Web-based computing. Or, as I’ve already suggested, Google’s Chrome OS will fit alongside traditional computing rather than displacing the standard “legacy” desktop OSes we all know and love (tolerate?) today.

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