Windows alternatives: Chrome OS or Ubuntu?

After all, they're both Linux. The bottom line: Chrome OS traps users in the cloud, but Ubuntu may leave them at sea

Last week, I spent a few days with a beta version of Chrome OS on a prototype notebook provided by Google. In other words, I lived in the Chrome browser and used Google Apps for about 72 hours. The experience wasn't half bad -- assuming a reliable 24/7 Wi-Fi or 3G connection.

But then I thought: Chrome OS is basically Linux with the Chrome browser as a shell. Can't I do that on my own? It wouldn't cost a dime, and unlike with the Chrome notebook, I'd be able to compute offline. Plus, I had just the candidate for the hardware: an old Acer Aspire One netbook that, ever since I installed Windows XP SP3 on it, had become so painfully slow it was unusable.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Canonical recently decided to use the Unity interface across all Ubuntu versions. | Can desktop Linux succeed in general business? InfoWorld's Neil McAllister is not so sure. ]

Desktop Linux and Chrome OS both offer low-cost alternatives to Windows. Which might make more sense for business users?

So I went to the Ubuntu site in search of the latest, greatest desktop Linux distro. As luck would have it, the fresh Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition promoted on the home page featured Unity, "an innovative user interface super-optimized for smaller screens." It even included Oracle OpenOffice preinstalled.

The Ubuntu experience

As instructed, I downloaded the .iso file and saved it to a USB stick, then booted from the USB drive to play around with Ubuntu before installing it -- looking good! Then came a crucial moment of decision: According to the documentation, I was supposed to be given the choice to "install alongside other operating system." For some reason I wasn't getting that option.

After some hesitation -- blam! -- I blew away Windows XP. What did I have to lose? I wasn't going to upgrade the little sucker to Windows 7. Its wimpy little Atom processor was already choking to death on XP.

My first impression post-installation: This isn't just usable, it's darn quick. The GUI is quirky, but nice enough. At last, an appropriate operating system for the hardware. Now, how do I connect to Wi-Fi? In terms of hardware compatibility, this would be the acid test.

I looked in Applications, found the Network Connections utility, and fired it up. Bingo -- I was on the air. But hmm, no "view available wireless networks" list presented itself. I needed to know the SSID name and enter it along with the security info: done. (Only later did I discover that available wireless networks are displayed in a separate utility called Network Manager.)

On to the Evolution mail client. I hate Outlook Web Access, so I was looking forward to a nice little email client, which by all accounts Evolution was. Supposedly, if you chose Microsoft Exchange as the server type, all you needed to do was enter the username, OWA server URL, and password.

Oops! "Unknown error." I checked the Gnome.org documentation for Evolution and it wasn't much help. Then I started wading into the Ubuntu forums, where, along with hashing over Evolution troubleshooting, a number of people in the Ubuntu community didn't seem to like 10.10 very much at all. It had issues -- lots of them. Many people, apparently, had reverted to version 10.04. Gulp.

The business proposition

I could go on, from the notorious difficulty of installing new applications to broken links all over the online documentation, but none of this was unexpected. Ubuntu is a living, breathing product of its community, so of course it's in constant flux. Despite the rough edges, I found myself liking the latest iteration of the product a lot.

Remember, though, that the point of my mini-experiment was to compare Ubuntu and Chrome OS as business solutions.

It almost goes without saying that I wouldn't unleash Ubuntu on a bunch of unsuspecting users. It's quirky enough to require training -- not only on the operating system, but on Oracle OpenOffice (which has its own baggage) -- and even with that users could get into trouble pretty easily. Not so with Chrome OS -- anyone can use a browser, and Web apps tend to be simple and goof-proof by nature.

I suppose you could preconfigure Ubuntu images and lock users out of changes that could cause problems, and no doubt paid support from Canonical would help immensely. But overall, training included, could you justify the time and effort?

The next phase of business computing is all about reducing the cost of ownership for client systems, not increasing it. Yes, we would all like to get out from under Microsoft Windows and Office licensing costs, but the endpoint security and logistical hassles of maintaining Windows are just as onerous. Ubuntu solves the security problem, but keeping users happy and productive would be quite a task.

I'm well aware that Chrome OS (which is still in early beta) and desktop Linux are not the only possible successors to today's Windows desktop; not just the Mac, but VDI comes to mind. I also know that, for many, the biggest problem of all with Chrome OS is the idea of ceding control to a cloud service. Nonetheless, if I were making the decision, I would be more inclined to outfit light-duty users with Chrome OS than with Ubuntu.

This article, "Windows alternatives: Chrome OS or Ubuntu?," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter and on your mobile device at infoworldmobile.com.

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