Introduction to ChromeOS


Disclaimer:  As ChromeOS is a moving target, constantly evolving and changing, there is no guarantee that the information contained herein will still be 100% accurate, or for that matter even relevant, by the time you read this.  It's even possible the ChromeOS project will have crashed and burned before these words make it to paper.  Still, as a matter of historical record, I will describe in the following pages my early experience with ChromeOS as both a piece of technology and a new concept in computing.

What is ChromeOS?

ChromeOS is an experiment by Google to see if the average users' day-to-day computing needs could be met (or perhaps even exceeded) by pushing all of their applications and personal files into the "cloud."  By the way, before we get too far into this, let's clear up one thing from the start; the "cloud" is just the Internet.  So for the rest of this article I am going to dispense with the marketing buzzword and just call it that, if it's all the same to you.

Anyway, the concept of putting all of our documents and programs on a remote server is certainly nothing new.  The mass market is already familiar with using the Internet as an application and data storage platform with immensely popular services like Facebook and Dropbox; and of course the very concept of the local machine being nothing more than a terminal that connects to a network of more powerful machines goes all the way back to the original mainframe computers.  In fact, you could even make the argument that putting all of our assets onto servers out of our control is a step backwards in computing, something that the community once fought hard to break free from.

Issues of freedom and privacy aside (don't worry, we will be back to that shortly), Google does make a strong case for the ChromeOS concept.  The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of average computer users don't do a whole lot on their machines other than access web-based services like Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  If we go along with the claim made in some of the ChromeOS promotional videos, that the average computer user spends 90% of their time in the web browser, it's logical that a machine which has only a web browser could fulfill the majority of their needs.

The startup tutorial that plays when you first login to the system also makes frequent references to the idea of a "Steamroller Attack," which is how Google describes the sudden and unavoidable destruction of a ChromeOS device.  It goes on to explain that, since everything is stored online, the local machine itself is nothing more than a disposable portal through which you access their services.  Therefore, the destruction or otherwise loss of the machine isn't a problem, since you can return right where you left off with a new unit.

But theory is just that, and without a real world test there is no way to be sure if the ChromeOS concept holds up with actual users.  Accordingly, Google announced they would be mailing out test machines loaded with the current build of ChromeOS to lucky applicants.

I would like to think that somebody from Google looked me up and decided that my website and published works were so well written and researched that they simply had to award me one of these new prototype machines, but realistically I am sure it was just the luck of the draw.  In any event, I now have in my possession Google's idea of the future, so let's take a look at it.

The Hardware

As the hardware itself (known as the CR-48) is a reference device, and almost certainly will never see a commercial release in it's current form, I won't dwell too long on it here.  But it is worth a mention as it does echo many of the same ideals of ChromeOS itself, and regardless of how close hardware manufacturers decide to follow it's example, it does say a lot about how Google envisions computers of the future.

If you asked me to picture what a mobilized, 21st century version of a mainframe terminal would be like, the CR-48 would be it.  It's simple, sleek, perfectly suited for it's task, and at the same time wholly forgettable.  It is a disposable computer if there ever was one, completely devoid of bells, whistles, or branding.  There is only a single USB port, a VGA connector for an external monitor, and an SD reader.  Even the original ASUS Eee 701 netbooks had more connectivity options.

The untrained eye may look at the CR-48 and assume that Google was simply trying to put out the cheapest machine they could for the purposes of the ChromeOS test, but a glance at what's under the hood tells another story.  The CR-48 is powered by Intel's Atom N455 processor, paired with 2 GB of DDR3 RAM and a 16 GB SSD.  In addition to the expected Wi-Fi, it has an integrated 3G modem with free data service of up to 100 MB per month, and Bluetooth 2.1.  At the time of this writing, the closest consumer netbook I could find with similar specifications was over $400, and even then, didn't have as large a screen or 3G.

The Software

ChromeOS is an incredibly simple platform from a software standpoint.  It is literally just a standard GNU/Linux system that boots directly into the Chrome browser.

Of course, the build of ChromeOS that ships on the CR-48 is very far from completion, and it could be that things will change significantly before the mass market gets their hands on it.  But as it stands, I am struck by how absolutely normal the Linux system is.  I was expecting something similar to Android, where the system powers a heavily customized and stripped down userland with the Linux kernel.  In ChromeOS, the only thing the system is missing to be a standard Linux desktop is a proper window manager and local applications.

There are however some added security features not normally found on desktop Linux.  For example, the /home directory and all removable devices are mounted with the noexec option, which means it isn't (normally) possible to execute binaries stored on these volumes.  This effectively prevents any executable programs from being run on the machine unless they were included in ChromeOS.

If you are the tinkering type, which if you are reading this you likely are, you will probably want to put ChromeOS into Developer Mode.  Developer Mode enables some nice features like "crosh" (ChromeOS' debug shell), and Linux terminal access.  On the CR-48 there is a physical switch under the battery cover that puts the machine into Developer Mode, but the ChromeOS documentation seems to indicate other machines may have different methods to enable this special mode.

The Experience

Part of the agreement you have to accept when applying for a CR-48 is that you will use the machine as your primary computer for awhile and send as much input back to Google as you can through the built-in feedback system.  I complied with the agreement and spent a week using, or perhaps more accurately attempting to use, the CR-48 as my main computer.  The experience was more or less what I expected, and certainly made for an interesting experiment.

I should start off by saying that I am clearly not the intended audience for ChromeOS, and I would go so far as to say neither are the vast majority of 2600 readers.  ChromeOS in it's current form is simply not suitable for anyone who does more than browse the Internet and use social networking sites.  But as it just so happens, those people are actually in the majority, so I don't know that the situation is a problem for Google.

I found that by enabling the aforementioned Developer Mode and getting access to the Linux terminal I was able to improve upon the situation immensely.  From Linux I was able to do things like mount USB storage devices and run X Windows over SSH, which let me display the output of graphical Linux applications in ChromeOS' window manager.  Being able to "Alt + Tab" into Firefox had a fun irony to it, but more importantly it let me run some graphical applications which simply don't have a ChromeOS parallel yet.  Of course, this is cheating, and the average user wouldn't be in Developer Mode, and certainly won't know enough about the Linux command line environment to mount his USB flash drive.

Which brings us to ChromeOS "Apps."  Surely, missing functionality in the core OS could be supplemented with third-party applications?  As it turns out, no.

As ChromeOS is built on the principle that most users simply want to access web-based services, it's idea of applications are, accordingly, things that you are able to do from within the browser itself.  But if the service is held entirely on the Internet, what exactly needs to be installed on the local ChromeOS machine?  Well, just what you would think, actually.  A bookmark.

That's right, as of this writing, the majority of ChromeOS "apps" are simply bookmarks.  Google is so Hell-bent on proving that the Internet is an applications platform that they have gone so far as to trick the user into thinking they are installing an application when they are really just making a bookmark to an existing website.  It's really rather ridiculous, the Web Store (where ChromeOS users go to download and purchase ChromeOS apps) is scarcely more than a repository of bookmarks that the user can search through and rate.  Oh, and purchase too; you can literally sell bookmarks on the ChromeOS Web Store.

The closest you can get to real applications on ChromeOS are Chrome Extensions, which are simply add-ons to the Chrome browser itself.  These vary from the handy to the inane, but on the whole they are all very simplistic.  There is only so much a browser add-on can do, after all.  These are also the same extensions you can get on the desktop version of Chrome, which means none of them are really making use of ChromeOS' APIs or unique features.

Even though I was faced with what seemed like intolerable limitations, I carried on with my duty to run ChromeOS and give Google feedback.  I found that after a few days I really did begin to adapt to a browser-only computer.  I even started to use more of Google's services, like Google Talk, since they were so tightly integrated into ChromeOS itself; surely part of Google's larger plan with ChromeOS.  Everything was going relatively well, until the night the Internet went out.

I was working on the CR-48, and when I clicked on the Gmail app I found it was unable to load.  I switched over to a tab that had Google open and tried a search, and sure enough that failed as well.  As a Comcast Internet customer, I am well accustomed to the Internet going out at random, and a quick glance over at the router showed that this was once again the case.  My first instinct was to simply work on something that didn't need the Internet, such as writing this article.  So I clicked on the Google Docs app so I could start writing... and then it hit me.

A wave of 21st century Lovecraftian horror grew over me as I realized that, without the Internet, the device in front of me was completely useless.  Write a document?  Not without Google Docs.  Play music?  Can't store anything on the local machine.  Play a game?  Surely you jest.  Write software?  Hell, I had a hard enough time with that when the Internet was still working.

It was a sobering wake-up call that the device sitting in front of me was most definitely not a computer in the sense I have become accustomed to.  It also reminded me that, while the Internet is certainly a very large part of what people do on their computers, it is assuredly not the only thing they do.  Not being able to write a document because the Internet is out is already absurd, but without the Internet I couldn't even get access to any of my files, which is absolutely unacceptable.

Cloud Conundrum

The night the Internet went out was a turning point for me and my CR-48, and not simply because I couldn't write a document.  With ChromeOS, I couldn't even get access to my own files unless I was on a decent Internet connection.  Which brings up a very interesting question: if I can't get to my files when I want them, are they still really my files?  If not, who's are they?

As far as impossibly large corporations go, Google has done a decent job of keeping itself on the side of good.  I don't really believe that Google themselves would somehow claim ownership of my documents, or allow a third-party to access them in their entirety.  But, Google makes it's money by selling targeted advertisements, and most of us are already aware of some of the ways Google matches the user with the ad.

By signing up for Gmail, for example, you agree to let Google pick keywords out of your messages and use those to show relevant advertisements.  My wife and infant daughter recently got into a car accident, and while I was writing an email to friends and family explaining what had happened, I noticed an advertisement for a sale at "Babies R Us" on new car seats.  Many people, maybe even most, would let something like that go without a second thought.  But the experience left me troubled, and I have to admit I am worried about that sort of technology being applied to my full text documents.

It isn't hard to imagine advertisers using keywords generated from text documents created with Google Docs in new and even more intrusive ways.  Typing up a letter of resignation?  Perhaps you would be interested in a career consultation?  Writing a journal entry about some stress you are having at work?  Perhaps you need suicide counseling!

Most of us have already been lulled into complacency by Google.  If you aren't one of the millions of users that have a Gmail account, you have still probably used Google's ubiquitous search engine.  Even if you have avoided using Google's services directly, the sites you access online have surely been using Google Analytics to gather information about their visitors' browsing.  By using Google's software, directly or indirectly, we have silently agreed to let personalized advertisements be generated for us.  But at least it has always been a choice; with your own computer you could make a conscious decision to avoid and block all of Google's software and replace it with alternatives.

With ChromeOS, that choice is largely removed.  The computer is no longer a possession of the user, it's importance as an object has been taken out of the equation.  In the ChromeOS model, the computer is simply a portal through which Google can push advertisements with greater efficiency than ever before.  Purchasing a ChromeOS device is akin to signing away your online identity to Google; some will balk at the prospect, but many more will accept the terms just to get a low cost computer.  Only time will tell which group made the right choice.

Beyond the CR-48

As I write this, third-parties have finally started announcing their own ChromeOS devices intended for the mass market.  These new machines are being referred to collectively as "Chromebooks,' which seems to indicate that the focus (at least for now) is to keep ChromeOS relegated to netbooks only.  Google has mentioned a desktop ChromeOS device being in the works, but I imagine it's release greatly depends on ChromeOS' success with mobile devices.

Since I have been in the ChromeOS pilot group since day one, I would like to think I have a fairly good idea where the ChromeOS project is going, and how it will get there.  But we are only a few weeks out from when the first official Chromebooks are supposed to start shipping, and I honestly don't see how the build of ChromeOS running on my CR-48 is ready for public consumption.  So many basic functions are missing or broken, it's hard to believe Google would risk such a poor first impression with their initial wave of devices.  If a bad first wave was enough to permanently damage the reputation of Windows Vista, I can only imagine its effect on a fledgling OS that is already pushing the boundaries of what the consumer expects from a computer.

One of the key elements of the ChromeOS initiative going forward is the fact that the devices will be made available to enterprise and educational customers as a monthly lease.  Enterprise users will pay $28 per month, while educational leases will cost $20.  Both require a three year contract, which includes hardware warranty and technical support.  This is an extremely aggressive pricing scheme, and it's pretty clear that this is where Google thinks ChromeOS is most likely to succeed.  I would be inclined to agree that schools and businesses are good candidates for low-cost subscription based computing; though I am not so convinced either of those groups will be too keen to sign up for a three year contract with a machine that still can't perform simple tasks such as printing a document.


As I said in the opening of this article, ChromeOS is a rapidly moving target, so I hesitate to make any judgment calls about it in terms of functionality or maturity.  Indeed, I have had to go back to edit and remove parts of this article as I was writing it, as ChromeOS goes through periods where updates are pushed out daily.

But some parts of ChromeOS are not going to change, as they are not a fault of the software but instead a conceptional limitation; ChromeOS is a platform for consumers, not creators.  You won't be developing software, rendering video, or mixing audio on ChromeOS machine.  Even though there are some simplistic attempts at those sort of applications, these are tasks which just don't lend themselves to this style of computing.

What's more, you will never escape Google's grasp when using a ChromeOS computer, no matter how far the software is developed.  At the end of the day, the goal of ChromeOS is to push more targeted advertisements to the user, so don't expect an option to "Opt Out" of Google's services and run the machine on your own terms (unless you want to wipe it and install your own OS).

As it stands, possible privacy issues notwithstanding, ChromeOS machines do make a lot of sense for schools or businesses where everyone needs to have a computer to access the Internet, send email, and do basic word processing.  On the other hand, I cannot fathom an individual purchasing a ChromeOS computer for anything near the cost of a more traditional system.

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