The Chrome What?

May 17th, 2011

Google continues to struggle to make you believe that they can do more than create search engines, online services, email software, and various odds and ends. With the Android OS, they want you to believe that you can get a reliable, state-of-the-art and open ecosystem for your smartphone or tablet. They even hope to make a splash in the computer operating system universe, but that may be a much harder nut to crack.

Now this isn’t to say that Android is bad. Clearly Google has been working really hard to expand the reach of Android to more and more smartphones. But the vaunted openness may be a mirage. There are published reports, growing out of a recent unfair business practices lawsuit against Google from Skyhook. Skyhook’s allegations, if taken as true, reveal deep restrictions over how Android can be used and configured by various handset makers. Confirming some of this are reports that Google has withheld releasing the source code of the latest and greatest version of Android for tablets, in order to limit the number of licensees and have greater control over the way they tailor the OS to their individual needs.

No doubt this is an outgrowth of the growing fragmentation problem in Android land. Handset makers have traditionally altered the OS with their own custom themes and added features to make their products seem unique rather than generic. Bundled apps and even the default Google search engine may be changed by wireless carriers. So the customer can’t be assured that one Android smartphone is the same as another when it comes to the user interface. And forget about getting needed upgrades to the OS, to fix bugs and security problems. It’s not as if you can just go to Google and download a copy, unless you’re willing to hack — or jailbreak — your Android OS device to receive an unvarnished version.

Although loads of Android smartphones have been sold, Android tablets haven’t fared so well. The OS remains buggy, unfinished, and these gadgets have, in large part, received tepid reviews even from journalists who aren’t exactly fans of Apple. This has left Apple with the tablet market pretty much to themselves, as the iPad steamrolls the competition.

Yes, I’m sure Google continues to invest huge amounts of cash to build a better tablet OS, but making poor first impressions is only going to convince potential customers to consider iPads and little else.

The latest Google effort, such as it is, is a PC-oriented OS called Chrome, which, like the browser of the same name, is essentially a browser and little else. The first group of Chrome OS note-books are showing up, at least for tech media reviewers, and they reveal the good and bad points of this minimalist approach.

Basically, you can use any app, so long as it can run within your browser. File management, beyond a tiny solid state drive, is restricted to the cloud. Imagine, for example, if your Mac shipped strictly with Safari installed, without the ability to add any other apps (even browsers). Could you survive within that environment? And do you really feel confident about the cloud in light of those recent failures at Amazon and even Microsoft?

I suppose many of you can. You can certainly access your email online; even ISPs offer browser-based access for customers who might use a friend’s computer, or one at a library. With Google Apps, and Microsoft’s Office alternative, you can actually do productive work in the cloud, and the files you make will be similarly stored online.

Unfortunately, if you lose your online access, you’re left with a brick. Even if the files could be stored locally, how do you run apps that require online access to function? Well, I suppose you could allow them to run offline, and perhaps add the ability to install extra apps directly on the computer’s drive, but suddenly the no-frills Chrome OS would simply become little more than another Linux-based OS, and they haven’t done so well in the consumer market.

This isn’t to say that cloud-based storage is bad, or running Web apps presents difficulties, so long, as I said, there’s a way to use those apps and create files on your local storage device when Internet access is unavailable. But this is nothing that you can’t already do on a traditional Mac or Windows computer. What advantage is Google offering, other than the speedier boot time because there’s less to load? Even that will become a non-issue as more and more solid state drives are used on Macs and PCs.

In the real world, Google will have a stiff climb with the Chrome OS. Reviewers haven’t greeted those prototype note-books with much enthusiasm. Yes, they are cheap, but no cheaper than a regular low-end Windows portable. Why pay the same for fewer features? Is there any practical reason for a customer to consider such a product, other than as a potentially needless indulgence?

I suppose Google will continue to work on the Chrome OS in hopes of taking the concept somewhere, but I rather think it’ll join a long line of “beta” products and services that Google has tried and failed to perfect.

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One Response to “The Chrome What?”

  1. tom b says:

    Sometimes I want solid ground instead of a cloud. A parable: all the video stores have closed down in my town because we are all supposed to be downloading our movies from “the Cloud” now. What nobody told the video store owners is that the local ISP choices are ATT (slow DSL) or Time Warner, which, in my town tops out at 3500 kb/sec– hardly feature-length movie ready. Or I could get an AppleTV, which could cache/store movies, but I’d need a really recent TV, as AppleTV requires HDMI– pretty steep system requirements. Thus, much of the market may find the “cloud” lacking, depending on one’s particular purpose.

    As for Google, they should stick to search. It’s what they are good at. By jumping into OS’s they did NOTHING for their stockholders, and alienated former friends (AAPL).

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