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

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At first, it's disconcerting to do work entirely in a browser -- I kept wanting to go to the equivalent of the Mac OS X Dock or Windows Start menu to access my apps and Web page favorites. Instead, you open a new tab to get your "home screen" equivalent each and every time you want to get to your apps. By default, you also need to open a new tab to get to the menu to see your bookmarks; however, there is a setting you can use to keep it permanently visible. Overall, it's more work to switch tasks in Chrome OS than in Windows or Mac OS X because there's no quick-access mechanism yet.

You'll find basic interface controls in the Chrome OS, such as for the default font size for Web pages. On any Web page you're viewing, you can zoom in the usual way, by pressing Ctrl-+. But forget about a customized user interface or the ability to add fonts, desktop backgrounds, and the like -- at least in this early version. It's a spare, generic experience. Aesthetically, Google's vision of cloud computing is not personal computing. (You can apply Chrome browser themes from the Web Store, but they're ugly.)

There is local storage on the Chromebook, but there's no equivalent of a file system, so don't expect drive icons or folders. If you try to download a file, it's placed in a floating window called Downloads that acts like a folder for Web apps; you can upload files from that "folder" into those apps when you click their Browse for File buttons. This upload/download via a scratch space also is time-consuming compared to the drag-and-drop and open-in-app functionality we're used to on desktops and smartphones.

If you want to print from a Chromebook, you have to use Google's forthcoming CloudPrint service, which will work with printers designed to use it and with printers connected to a Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux PC (using the PC as a waystation) -- similar in approach to Apple's disappointingly limited printing capability in iOS 4.2. Right now, CloudPrint works only via Windows PCs, after an amazingly confusing and complicated install process. I couldn't get it to work from a Windows XP virtual machine on my Mac, but InfoWorld Editor in Chief Eric Knorr did get it to work from his XP laptop. But we can't test what the direct printing is like yet.

Google has bragged that Chrome OS is really fast and that Chromebooks would turn on or awaken in just a few seconds. Both statements are true, but the operating system is overall much slower to use because it lacks the interoperability that desktop and mobile operating systems provide. I turn on my computer once a day, so saving a couple minutes of boot time is meaningless. What is meaningful is all the extra time that the Chrome approach takes to switch among resources and work with files -- I do those all day long. Plus, my MacBook Pro and iPad both awaken in just seconds from sleep mode, so a Chromebook has no advantage there.

I'd gladly lose the faster bootup for faster operations. Operational speed matters much more than boot speed.

Using Chrome apps
As I mentioned previously, the first Chrome apps are primitive, like most Web apps. They also tend to assume you work with only a single app. I believe that apps are the Achilles' heel of the Chrome OS. They will need to be significantly more capable for most users to accept them. I can tell you I gained a newfound appreciation for desktop and mobile apps after using the Web apps available for Chrome OS.

For example, there's currently no unified email client. In Chrome OS, I keep separate windows open for my Gmail account, my Exchange account, and my personal IMAP email account. I have a Gmail account only because one is required to use Google tools; otherwise, it doesn't need to be open. But in Chrome OS, I have to switch back and forth between the Webmail pages for my two regular accounts. That's a pain I don't experience on my desktop or on my mobile devices, all of which support a unified mail account. In Chrome OS, my calendars and contacts are also separated -- unlike with my desktop and mobile devices. Frequent switching among these accounts costs me time, context, and flexibility.

Worse, Webmail sucks. Working with folders is very difficult, for example, and you don't typically get message previews to help you prioritize what you read in depth. And Exchange's Webmail warned me that Chrome is not a supported browser (of course not!), so I might have some functional limits, the details of which are currently unknown to me. The net result is that one of the key daily tasks -- communicating -- is harder in Chrome OS. If I used only Gmail and didn't care about folders and the like, it'd be fine -- but that's grandma-and-office-drone usage. The rest of us need more.

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