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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However, the prototype Chromebook does demonstrate the assumptions Google has for real models. Basically, they're small laptops, with 12-inch screens and no hard drves or optical drives, so they weigh only about 4 pounds. The 12-inch screen felt tight to me, even after I upped the default font size by 25 percent -- a 13-inch screen would be better for my middle-aged eyes.

You get a full-size keyboard that lacks two critical keys: Page Up and Page Down. That makes it hard to scroll through text-oriented applications, and I found no shortcuts to simulate these essential keys. The keyboard is very much modeled after an Apple keyboard, and Apple dropped Page Up and Page Down years ago from its laptops -- an Apple interface decision that should not be copied. You can scroll using the trackpad with the two-finger gesture common on other operating systems, but it's not the same as paging up and down.

There's also no Caps Lock key (a Search key takes its place); Google said the goal was to eliminate "yelling" in website comments. That's a charmingly naive rationale for people who must only spend time on the Web. Getting rid of it to control silly Web commenters is dumb social engneering on Google's part. (What's next: getting rid of the question-mark symbol to prevent dumb questions?) I can live without a Caps Lock key, but it is actually useful in writing; fortunately, Chrome OS has a setting to make the Search key act as a Caps Lock key instead.

The Chromebook also gets rid of the function keys that PCs borrowed from mainframes 30 years ago. I won't miss them, although I'll be curious how remote control applications such as the promised Citrix Receiver for Chrome OS will deal with Windows Server apps that use them. Instead, there's a row of keys that are heavily inspired by Apple MacBook keyboards, with keys for brightness, audio volume, full-screen mode, and tab switching (which doesn't work yet), plus Web-oriented keys for Back, Forward, and Refresh. No Home key, though. I also can't find a way to enter accented letters or special symbols such as the euro symbol.

There's not much else on a Chromebook. The protototype has one USB port to support mice, keyboards, and (not yet implemented) storage. There's also an SD card slot, an audio jack, and a VGA video port. Nothing happened when I inserted an SD card or USB thumb drive, and attaching an external USB drive just caused it to click repeatedly. At this point, the only files accessible are those stored in the Downloads "folder" (a browser tab like everything else) after being downloaded from the Web. (Google's help page suggests the storage device capabilities aren't yet implemented.)

In any event, it's clear that Chromebooks will be simple devices. I'd add a second USB port, but there's no reason to lard up Chromebooks with all the ports that most laptops have these days. The support for Bluetooth devices such as keyboards also helps reduce the need for dedicated ports.

Looking forward to the next beta round
Hardware, of course, is not what the Chrome OS is all about. Frankly, the Chromebook device is nothing more than a package to contain Google Docs and other Web services from Google and others. It's a Google Docs-plus-Web appliance.

Conceptually, that makes sense -- if the apps are rich enough. If the final Chrome OS' app universe six months from now is similar to what's available today, the Chrome OS will be at best a niche product: a simple PC on which Grandma only reads email and IMs, peruses the Web, and shares photos of the family as well as a simple PC that requires no IT administration for office drones who work only in Google Apps. It would also have niche uses as a survey tool by marketers at shows and malls, and (if there's a non-3G version) for bedside data entry in hospitals and clinics.

Done right, the Chrome OS could power the typical family computer and the common business computer for use within the comfort of local, reliable Wi-Fi networks. (It'll need parental controls and remote-wipe capabilities, respectively, though.) That would create an interesting new world, with Chromebooks becoming the first commonly used thin client (the netbook reinvented); iPads and future Android tablets staking out the role of the highly personal, use-it-anywhere "compu-entertainer"; and traditional laptops and PCs finding themselves confined to a role as the new workstation for specialized tasks such as graphics creation. Every home would have a PC or Mac, a Chromebook or two, and a bunch of iPads or Android slates. Most businesses would have a Chromebook on every desk, lots of slates and smartphones for those not confined to a desk, and a just a few workstation PCs for the CFO, in-house developers, and the creative teams.

But in its current incarnation, the cloud-only Chrome OS is no threat to the local-plus-cloud PC nor to the new generation of local-plus-cloud slates such as the iPad.

I'm hoping the folks at Google, despite the apparent slow progress, have been working on a compelling, rich experience that doesn't confine itself to Google's universe of services or to today's primitive style of Web apps. I'll be looking for tangible signs of this during the next several months of Chrome OS' beta development. Stay tuned!

This article, "First look: Chrome OS beta's Achilles' heel is its reliance on the Web," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in cloud computing and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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