Google's Chrome OS starts to get real, but still falls shy

The all-in-the-cloud OS gains polish as Google prepares for the first Chromebooks to ship, but apps remain awkward

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The two examples of printing and storage underline that a Chromebook is not just a laptop with a new OS but a new way of computing. Not only does it differ from traditional laptop OSes, but it also contrasts with the iPad and other tablets. Sure, tablets rely more heavily on cloud services than PCs do, but they provide local apps and storage, as well as direct connectivity. Those apps can overcome some of the limitations of the tablets; for example, there are iOS apps that let iPads print directly to wirelessly connected printers, not just to HP's models or through a computer you have to leave on. Maybe we'll see such apps eventually for Chrome OS, but Google has purposely kept Chrome OS limited to retain the purity of its cloud vision.

What this all means is that a Chromebook probably won't replace a laptop anytime soon. Odds are it'll be used like an iPad: as an additional "+1" device for use on the go, in cafés, at conference halls, in lobbies, and during quick trips. In that sense, it competes with the Apple iPad, Motorola Mobility Xoom, and the Motorola Mobility Atrix Lapdock, which also are designed for on-the-go computing, but the four devices approach such mobility differently. It will be interesting to see if the Chromebook approach of pure reliance on the cloud gains traction compared to the Lapdock approach of augmenting a smartphone when on the go and the tablet approach of the iPad and Xoom of providing a mix of local and cloud services.

As Chrome OS gains polish, its Web apps look clunkier
When I first used the Chromebook, I was concerned about the lack of fit and finish in the demo apps at Google's Chrome Store. Now that the Chrome OS itself has gained polish and responsiveness, the Chrome OS Web apps feel even clunkier. Using Webmail, for example, is an awkward experience compared to using a "real" mail client, whether on a laptop or tablet.

Web apps don't handle direct manipulation well, such as dragging mail folders, so they tend to be more labor-intensive in their usage and less sophisticated in their capabilities. Although I appreciate Chrome OS more and more, I really dislike the Web apps -- which are what you would use day to day for anything other than basic Web activities.

Google really needs to redefine what a Web app is, perhaps by taking its Google Docs suite and making them work like a "real" app suite. Right now, Google Docs is fine as a waystation for shared data and on-the-go touch-up work, but it's not a comfortable tool for real editing, calendaring, emailing, spreadsheet work, or presentation work. (Microsoft's Office Web Apps is no better.)

Google has promised to add local storage to Google Docs, so you can keep working on files when disconnected, but it hasn't yet delivered, despite an original claim of a March 2011 beta release. (It now says Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Calendar will support offline usage this summer.) It's harder these days to be disconnected, if you're willing to pay for data access -- even airplanes offer in-flight Wi-Fi service. But there are periods of the day when you are disconnected, such as during your commute or waiting for take-off in a plane -- and not everyone can afford all the 3G and Wi-Fi plans to stay nearly always connected.

Currently, a tablet can handle that mix of online and offline situations, whereas a Chromebook cannot. Chromebook users need to make sure their files are synced before they lose their connections. The good news is that if you don't close the browser window and the battery doesn't die, the document you were working on stays in the local cache and should sync when you regain connectivity.

I believe the connectivity issue will not be a deal breaker for most users -- but the awkwardness of the Web apps compared to using a laptop or an iPad will. After all, an iPad is a lot lighter and easier to carry around than a Chromebook, though a Chromebook has the advantage (like the Lapdock) of providing a full desktop Web experience, unlike the iPad or other tablets. And you can get a light laptop that's no bigger or heavier than a Chromebook -- with full computing capabilities. The Chromebook beats laptops in terms of battery use, but that may not be enough of an advantage to be a substitute.

Still, there's something compelling about the Chromebook concept. Chrome OS is showing more promise now than in its December 2010 beta debut, but still feels gawky compared to an iPad. Google has a little time before commercial Chromebooks appear. Here's hoping it has some truly amazing Web apps in development ready to redefine today's low expectations of what a Web app can do.

This article, "Google's Chrome OS starts to get real, but still falls shy," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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