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

Updated Wednesday, May 11

Google announced today at its Google I/O conference that Samsung and Acer will ship cloud-only laptops running Google's Chrome OS on June 15, with prices equivalent to low-end regular laptops, with the option for renting them for $28 per month. There's been a sharp increase in Chrome OS beta updates in the last few weeks, so it's no surprise that Google is finally giving reality to the old "Webtone" promise of Sun Microsystems in which the Web is the operating system and devices simply are portals to it -- what we now call cloud computing.

Chrome OS is basically the Chrome 11 Web browser running by itself on a laptop, which has dubbed a "Chromebook." There is no traditional OS like Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X underneath that can run other applications. Everything happens in Chrome OS, and most notions of what a computer provides, such as printer ports and removable storage, simply don't apply.

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A Chromebook has solid-state memory to hold the OS, cache files for when you're working, and stubs to the Web applications you run (essentially, glorified bookmarks), but everything else resides in the cloud, which is accessed via the Chromebooks' built-in Wi-Fi or 3G cellular service. Google hopes a lot of that activity will be on its cloud, such as Google Docs, but a Chromebook works with any AJAX-based website (sorry, no ActiveX) or service.

In recent weeks, the updated Chrome OS beta on a prototype Chromebook has become much more responsive and smoother. The betas in December through March definitely had an unfinished feel and stuttery performance, but not the betas that have been coming since late April. If you use the Chrome browser, you know the Chrome OS experience: simple, spare, capable, and fast.

The Chromebook isn't just a laptop with a new OS
But without a "real" OS underneath, you really are dependent on the cloud. Printing, for example, requires that you have an ePrint-capable printer (Hewlett-Packard makes a few models, which also work with iPhones and iPads) or route your print jobs through Google's cloud print service, which basically means through a networked Windows PC or Mac. People print less and less, but the process is clunky and will be more complex than most will find acceptable. It's probably a plus that fewer and fewer of us have items to print anymore.

Likewise, storage is delivered through the cloud, so you can't transfer your photos directly via a USB cable or thumb drive to work on them in, say, Picasa. Instead, your camera will need its own wireless connection to transfer the images to a cloud photo service, and you'll work on them over wireless from your Chromebook. When you're not using a Wi-Fi connection, you should expect to quickly eat through 3G data plans. Of course, the advantage of cloud-based storage is that your files are available to any device compatible with that service: PCs, Macs, Chromebooks, iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. You don't have to remember to bring the files once they're uploaded.

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