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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I had a better experience using Microsoft Office Web Apps, Google Docs, and InfoWorld's Drupal-based content management system. These Web apps work pretty much the same in Chrome OS as they do in a Windows or Mac browser, which is to say good enough for basic editing and formatting. (Mobile browsers don't support them, unfortunately.) You can't track revisions in either Office Web Apps or Google Docs, so they may not be sufficient for many business workflows. And Chrome OS doesn't support their drag-and-drop text editing, but they are fine for basic document work.

I witnessed some odd behavior in Drupal: In Chrome OS, Drupal would sometimes apply unwanted span tags to my text when I deleted paragraph breaks, which never happens in my Mac or PC browsers. The cursor also tended to jump around the screen randomly, whether I used an external mouse or the prototype Chromebook's quirky trackpad. I didn't experience these issues in Office Web Apps or Google Docs, though.

I also lodged a productivity issue with Office Web Apps and Google Docs: Getting files to and from them is a pain. To open a file attachment for editing requires first downloading it to that Downloads area, then uploading it into the editing app. Emailing it to someone requires a similar chain of steps. That's an issue in both Chrome OS and in these particular services. Chrome OS doesn't facilitate interapplication communication, and these apps assume you use only them.

Plus, copying and pasting text across apps results in formatting being partially or fully removed; in some cases, lots of unnecessary HTML formatting is added (such as span and o tags, a frequent problem with HTML exports in Microsoft Office). This issue is common even in the desktop Web, where the open source MCE and other rich text facilities assume that text comes from Microsoft Office only and can't properly handle other sources. Without a local version of Office to use as a waystation, Chrome OS suffers severely from this transportability flaw.

Right now, all these apps require ongoing Internet access. Google says it is revamping Google Docs to support HTML5's offline storage mechanism, so you can work on documents when not connected via Wi-Fi or Verizon 3G service (the only connectivity options). Support for offline storage will be critical for Chrome OS' success. Without it, a bad Internet connection can cause you to lose your data, as changes you make go poof when you try to save them or upload them to the cloud server the app uses. This dependency on live Internet connectivity is one aspect of Chrome OS that makes me very nervous.

Also, the cloud dependency means, at least right now, you can't launch an "installed" application when disconnected. The app on your home screen is just a link to the app on a Web server somewhere. If you're not at home or at an office with a good Wi-Fi network, that means you'll never be sure if you can launch an app. After all, 3G service is spotty and inconsistent: Even within a fixed location such as a home, you may get a signal in one location but not another, and certainly if you commute by train or bus you know that the 3G signal comes and goes. To address this issue, maybe Google will use HTML5's offline storage capacity to keep "installed" applications locally cached, not just their data, so you can launch them at any time. We'll see.

In using Chrome OS over both Wi-Fi and Verizon 3G service (which is slow to reconnect after you've been idle or put the Chromebook asleep), I frequently noted the slowdowns as applications and documents loaded. That didn't bother me for the InfoWorld CMS, which is a Web app whose pauses I'm already used to. But it was disconcerting in Office Web Apps and Google Docs compared to using a local app such as Microsoft Office or Apple iWork. I'll probably get used to the pauses, but for now it triggers fear that I'll lose my data because of a connectivity snafu -- not a worry about when using my MacBook Pro or iPad, as they can always save locally.

At this point, there aren't any serious Chrome apps to explore how far you can go with Web apps. I'll do a follow-up report when there are.

Using the Chromebook
The all-black, unlabeled Cr-48 laptop that Google has provided for beta testers is definitely not something you'd want to buy. It's a cheap system whose keyboard is a bit imprecise and thus typo-prone, and whose trackpad is intermittently unresponsive and subject to random selection and cursor movements (known bugs at the Chrome OS help site). But Google was clear the Cr-48 is not a production-quality device. Acer, Samsung, and perhaps others will make the real thing, and they'll likely have better quality. 

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