December 31, 2010

The ChromeOS CR-48 Experience: Fast, Promising, Early

While the tech elite gained notifications early in the month that their Google ChromeOS-powered CR-48 notebooks were on their way, and thousands of others flocked to submit their names to become one of the lucky chosen 60,000 few to get access to what could be the first version of the next big operating system, my e-mail box remained empty. I must have groused about it enough that my wife finally took to her blog to lodge complaint with Google (somewhat tongue in cheek). Come Christmas morning, the last surprise for me was that she had subsequently conspired with some well-thinking Google staffers to make the device available for the holiday (along with some fun Android figurines). While I had to scowl at her end-run which delayed my access to the notebook, I finally put my ego aside and have been using the CR-48 intermittently for about a week, and have found it to be filled with intriguing promise, even if this is clearly not the final package.

The major hypothesis of the ChromeOS plan is that the future is the Web. Web sites, Web services and Web applications. As such, the main differentiation between the ChromeOS powered notebook and that of more traditional laptops running Windows or Mac is that there is very little of the desktop metaphor, with a local hard drive to save all of your documents and run your software applications. Running ChromeOS is much like a terminal that only runs the Web browser. Like the Hotel California, you can try to quit the app, but you can never truly leave.

First impressions with the Chrome OS are very smart. After taking a photo with the bulit-in Webcam to take your profile photo and finding the nearest WiFi point, you connect with your Google ID, and the service pulls in bookmarks you may have synchronized across your Chrome browser. If you are a person who lives on the Web, you're practically set. Theoretically, all your e-mail, your social networks, your favorite Web sites, and even your documents (if you use Google Docs) are right there. What more could you possibly want?

The hardware, the less revolutionary but still nice to have, half of the equation, is extremely minimalist. Black all the way around. Quiet. Very quiet. It wakes up quickly from having the screen closed, and is quite smooth. After years of seeing my keyboard YELL AT ME with letters in full caps, the Google CR-48 is soothingly lower case. Even the CAPS LOCK key is gone, replaced with a search button - not that I found myself using that any more than just typing a word in the browser bar and hitting return if I truly wanted something. The trackpad is not the best in the world, but you can get used to it.

For someone raised in the desktop metaphor with applications, the feeling that I can't get out of the browser and "get to my files" is a bit disconcerting and takes some rethinking. Jokingly, I saw it as if a person had been placed on house arrest. Sure, you can still watch TV and get food from the fridge, and maybe even have visitors over, but you can't do anything outside beyond looking out the window. The lock-in seemed forced, even if I understood why. It's something of the nature where it's assumed Google knows best for me, even if the user is left wondering if its their own best interests that are being served, or that of the company.

At the early stage of ChromeOS's life, it's tempting to list those things you can't really do. You have a Webcam, but it doesn't work to take photos for some Web services, as neither Brizzly and Facebook could recognize it, while Gmail's built in video chat could. You can download Zip files from e-mail attachments, but not unpack them. Taking screenshots looks like an impossibility.

That brings us to the Chrome Web store, the accepted place to run applications in the browser. Nicely laid out, reminiscent of iTunes, there's a great number of options there, but it's early days, so for every well thought out app, there are others that just serve as shortcuts to existing services, or lower-quality apps. Believers will have to be patient as the iTunes Store was not a huge winner back in 2003 either, and it will take time for developers to learn how to code for Chrome OS.

Included with the CR-48 notebook is embedded 3G wireless from Verizon, which makes the device very appealing for mobile computing. In the interest of not adding another 3G bill beyond that from my two Samsung Sprint devices, I did not enable this, but obviously could see the value.

Like many of Google's products, the device and the underlying OS is very useful from day one. It's clean. It's fast. Its battery is very good and the compatibility of practically all sites and services on the OS is very good. But also like other Google products, to fully adopt the direction takes something of faith, that improvements and compatibility with more hardware and more flexibility is on its way.

To have consumers purchase Chrome OS laptops, once they hit the market, serious efforts will need to be taken to convince people why putting everything in the cloud, and abandoning (for the most part) applications they know well, will help their lives. It's not just enough to built an intriguing device, but to also successfully sell the story around the device. For the thousands of brave souls who have access to the CR-48, getting the new laptop is fun, but also free. In parallel, we will need to see growth in applications and services to take advantage of ChromeOS, to ensure confidence we can close down our Macs and our Windows machines and go completely Google.