Google Chrome OS: Less is (Not) More

After the initial buzz of receiving the Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook and playing around with it, I'm suddenly feeling a little underserved.

Why? Because it just doesn't do enough to delight my full-featured PC operating system sensibilities. And I'm not alone here. The chorus of negative impressions of the Cr-48 is getting louder as people realize it's a small notebook that connects you to a browser, and your options are to surf the Web and access Web apps or...um...well...that's your only option.

For more details on what the Cr-48 can and can't do, click here for a breakdown by Network World's Jon Brodkin.

The challenge that the one-dimensional Chrome notebook faces is that PC users are accustomed to a certain way of working (and playing) when their laptops are turned on. The reason all modern PC operating system designs (Windows, Mac OS, Linux) include a desktop, a taskbar, a file and folder system, offline access to applications, a Start menu, etc. is because PEOPLE LIKE IT THAT WAY. Of course, Windows can be slow to start up and shut down and it doesn't age well. But this is certainly tolerable given all its myriad features and functions. And the Mac OS? All Mac users do is gush about it.

If there were user groups clamoring for a PC operating system that connects to a browser and does little else, I must not have heard their pleas for simplicity.

With that said, the Cr-48 notebook is just a prototype and one assumes the generic, rubbery hardware and stubborn trackpad will be improved when these things roll out for real. This is not a formal review of the device, but I can say that it does boot up, go to sleep, reawaken, and shut down quicker than any netbook or notebook I've ever used. Its browser is damn fast and it installs Web apps instantly (I just installed the New York Times app from the Chrome Web Store on the Cr-48 in, no joke, a nanosecond).

That's all great, but it's just a small part of what most users want and need a laptop to do. The Chrome OS is like a pretty glass house with shiny hardwood floors and a giant HD flat-screen mounted on the wall in the living room. But there's no garage, no stove, no closets, no refrigerator, no toilet. OK, maybe there's a toilet.

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So I ask: What will laptop and smartphone owners see in Chrome OS notebooks when they become generally available in mid-2011? Not much, unless they cost $100 or less. Then it becomes more appealing as a secondary device to take with you on vacation or give to your 10-year-old daughter. And with this week's news that the price of conventional PCs are actually going up after dropping for years, the Chrome OS notebooks could stand out by being cheap, cheap, cheap.

Could they find a niche as a secondary work device? Not when there are netbooks and tablet PCs that do more. The Cr-48's that Google is sending out are not fit to be work machines because, as much as Google and other vendors would like to think, we don't all work in the cloud yet. We will soon enough as broadband expands, Internet connectivity becomes more reliable and cloud services win over security-wary IT managers -- but we're not there today.

Which begs the question: Is Google just way ahead of us here? Certainly Google is one of the most innovative companies ever, and its other foray into operating systems, mobile wunderkind Android, is a smash success. But the Chrome OS notebook feels less like an innovation than the act of a wealthy company that felt obligated to do something in the PC market and then let an internal experiment be released to the wild prematurely.

Nevertheless, the Cr-48 prototype we see today is not what will hit stores next summer (If indeed it hits stores at all. A former Google employee predicts Google will kill Chrome OS or merge it with Android before then). Google will likely spend the winter and spring bolstering the Chrome OS so it has more offline access, better Flash support, and the ability to download all types of documents and connect to all types of USB devices.

You know, like a real computer.

What do you think of the Chrome OS notebook? Is the world ready for, or does it need, a bare-bones cloud notebook?

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at soneill@cxo.com.

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