First look: Chrome OS beta's Achilles' heel is its reliance on the Web

In its first public version, the forthcoming cloud-based alternative to Windows and Mac OS X is too limited by -- ironically -- the cloud

Computers and their software today are too complicated, and users are increasingly looking at iPads and cloud-based services such as Google Docs to handle the basics that most of us stick to: document editing, photo management, emailing, Web browsing, and the like. Running Office on a PC or Mac is beyond overkill for most people. Google proposes we do away with the PC altogether, at least part of the time, and replace it with Google's cloud-based laptop -- an appliance in which the Chrome browser serves as operating system. With the Chrome OS, all actions occur in the browser and the cloud.

Google announced Chrome OS in July 2009, formally introduced it 13 months ago, and then went silent. Last week, it re-introduced Chrome OS and this time gave an ETA for the real thing: mid-2011. It also distributed prototype "Chromebook" laptops to people like me for ongoing testing of what Google CEO Eric Schmidt said would be an alternative to both Windows and Mac OS X. I've now had some quality time with that laptop, its Chrome OS, and the early apps available for the platform.

[ Get the scoop on Google's Chrome OS details and see the beta OS in action. | Get your websites up to speed with HTML5 today using the techniques in InfoWorld's HTML5 Deep Dive PDF how-to report. ]

Chrome OS could be an option for grandmas and office drones: people who do very basic tasks, have a single email account, don't often share documents and data with other applications, don't use professional features such as revisions tracking when editing documents, and work with just forms. At this stage, the Web apps available for Web browsers such as Chrome OS -- including Microsoft Office Web Apps, Google Docs, and the first apps available at Google's new Chrome Web Store -- are rudimentary at best. And they don't play well with each other.

Unless Google and others succeed in developing really compelling Web apps that also operate with the rest of the Web, I believe the concept of a cloud laptop will fail. Yes, Office and many other apps are way too complicated, but Chrome apps are today way too simplistic and limited. I would point Google and Chrome developers to the apps you see on the iPad as examples of a better balance between simplicity and capability, where sophistication is not sacrificed.

It's clear that Google still has a long way to go to make Chrome OS viable; six months out from formal rollout, the operating system and the apps are in no way ready for prime time. I'm frankly surprised how primitive it all is half a year away from launch, but Google did warn that it has work to do. Maybe there's a lot going on behind the scenes that will quckly come together to make Chrome OS worth considering when it is formally released. Anyhow, keep Chrome OS' early nature in mind -- the prototype laptops, for example, aren't even running a beta version of the Chrome 9 browser that they'll ship with, but instead use a version of today's Chrome 8 browser.

The Chrome OS experience
The Chrome browser is very spare, following the general Google strategy of eliminating clutter. What you get is simply the Chrome browser as your operating system. Your "desktop" is merely a browser tab with the icons of the apps you've installed, and any app you open is just a Web page in a browser tab. You won't see many floating windows or dialog boxes. The available on-screen controls are very simple: Back, Forward, Refresh, Add to Favorites, and Settings. You can also add a Home button to the on-screen controls, an option that is turned off by default. Additionally, there's a Search key on the laptop -- that's it.

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