Today’s column is an extended take on Google’s CR-48 preview of its Chrome operating system:
It was thrilling to fire up Google’s ultra groovy CR-48 laptop running the company’s new Chrome operating system.
The Applesque machine was like an early Christmas present from Silicon Valley Santa. Inside the eco-friendly cardboard package was technology that promised to finally topple Microsoft’s 30-year dominance of the PC business.
Who could wait to see what kind of new computer the hottest software company in the world can create with its $3 billion-a-year research budget?
But after spending a few days with the CR-48, I don’t think Microsoft has much to worry about yet. If anything, Chrome is more likely to challenge Apple’s iOS software used in the iPad.
Chrome OS is elegantly designed with clever features that make it simple to run. But the software is crippled by Google’s ambitious business objectives and quixotic pursuit of “online only” computing.
It’s not really a personal-computer operating system, like Windows or Apple’s OS X. It’s more of an embedded system – like the software inside a cable box or phone – that’s locked into place, mostly out of reach to users and managed remotely by Google.
What the user sees is just a browser – a version of Google’s Chrome browser – with enough software under the hood to make the computer work. As a result the software is fast to start but limited. The user hardly has any control or choice over how to use and manage the computer on which it’s running.
Chrome is designed to be always connected to the Web, through Wi-Fi or Verizon 3G Wireless service.
The CR-48 that Google’s distributing to developers, testers and the media is a gorgeous laptop but, unfortunately, it’s not for sale. It’s only a test bed for demonstrating, testing and marketing the Chrome OS, which is to start appearing on computers sold by Acer, Samsung and others next year.
I’m expecting to see a bunch of different Chrome systems shown in January at the Consumer Electronics Show aimed for stores later in 2011. There will probably be a mix of laptops, tablets similar to the iPad and maybe even “all-in-one” systems with a monitor and processor in the same unit.
They’ll probably cost about the same or less than low-end Windows PCs.
They should be cheaper, since the systems require you to use Google’s ad-supported services. Buyers probably will also end up buying Verizon Wireless service.
Google and Verizon are offering 100 megabytes of free data transmission per month for two years to Chrome users. After that you’ll have to pay either $10 per day for unlimited service or sign up for monthly plans that start at $20 for 1 gigabyte of data. (Verizon provides information on how much data various tasks will use; an excerpt below)
The 100 megabytes lasted less than a day. It wasn’t enough to watch a single episode of “The Office” on Hulu.com, stuttering and buffering on the 3G service at my house. Partway through, the system showed an error message, blaming the website. It said the site “may be temporarily down or it may have moved permanently to a new Web address.” Hulu was still up; the problem was that I needed to start paying Verizon or get on a Wi-Fi network.
Google is taking another stab at the “network computer” that Oracle, Sun Microsystems and others proposed in the 1990s.
The concept is to offer cheap and simple computers that connect to a network where the heavy-duty computing is handled and centrally managed. The PC becomes a simple terminal.
This approach minimizes the importance of the PC and puts the emphasis on the data center.
You’ve probably used a similar system at libraries, which provide terminals to search and browse the catalog.
Having a browser-only computer is fine for a lot of things we do with computers. You can write and save documents at sites like Google Docs or Office Web Apps, if they’re designed to work with Chrome. I was able to edit an Office document with the CR-48 but couldn’t stream anything from Netflix, which uses software that’s not supported by Chrome.
Last week’s “launch” of Chrome was really aimed at Web developers. Google wants them to write special versions of their Web pages for Chrome. Those pages are characterized as applications and distributed through a polished Chrome app store offering free and paid apps. When you “install” one of these pages, they are bookmarked on your Chrome start page, with phonelike icons that you click to open the pages.
But this approach really works only if you’re constantly connected to the Web. It also shifts control of the system from the user to the system manager and site operators.
Some people will be uncomfortable using computers that basically require you to log in to Google and store files on its servers.
For all of Google’s talk about open software and net neutrality, Chrome OS is pushing computing back toward a model where you’ve got to sign in and use a big, nosy company’s mainframe.
It’s also unclear whether Google is willing to invest the massive effort it takes to build and support a true PC operating system. For instance, one of the hardest things about building an OS is making sure it works with different devices people use with their computers.
I connected the CR-48 to a three-year-old printer in my house and was presented with a “white screen of death” – a blank box that froze the browser. I should have read the online help pages first; Chrome OS doesn’t have any printer drivers whatsoever.
To print something, you’ve got to send the file to a Google server, which in turn will send the file to a Windows PC (not a Mac) that’s connected to a printer. But first you’ve got to sync your Windows PC with Google’s online print service and be sure that it’s logged in to your Google account.
Google may think this is a clever way to piggyback on the work Microsoft’s done to support all the different printers people use, at least until all printers connect to the Web. Chrome OS users are going to think it’s a royal pain and the software just doesn’t work right.
More competition in the operating-system business is good and Chrome is an intriguing entry. But it has a long way to go before it’s a contender for your next PC.
Note: For a different perspective, here is a post by Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt about the CR-48 launch and Chrome OS, relating his work on an early Sun network computer and “going back to old ideas.”