Google announced this week that ChromeOS finally ... well, it's still not shipping. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, evaluation units are being shipped to lots of people, and both Acer and Samsung plan to pop ChromeOS netbooks in a couple of months.
Some people are impressed. Others are questioning the very existence of ChromeOS: Why would anybody want a computer that's totally tied to network access? How is this relevant in the middle of a tablet revolution?
It's actually very relevant. I'm not predicting the success or failure of ChromeOS as a consumer product, but I am predicting that it's (yet another) game-changer. Understanding it may require that you give up some things that you "know" about computers.
- It's not tied to the Internet (not the way you think). The coming wave of applications will be Web-centric but will work offline in the event you can't connect to wifi or mobile broadband. To understand how this is possible, see http://www.w3.org/TR/html5/offline.html and
http://dev.w3.org/html5/webstorage/ and http://www.html5rocks.com/tutorials/offline/storage/ and
http://code.google.com/chrome/apps/ for details. Google actually had its Google Docs online word-processor fairly functional offline a couple of years ago (I used it to edit documents on an airliner), but threw all of that work out to embrace the new standards. Watch what happens in the next three months.
- It is Internet-centric (in a good way). Your "stuff" is always "there." You won't accidentally leave an important file out of reach at work, at home, or at school. Everything is synchronized -- your bookmarks, the place you left off reading Great Expectations last night, your purchased apps, your music. If you use Chrome browser today, or a Kindle, or Netflix, you should have been given a small taste of what this means. See http://www.google.com/support/chrome/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=165139 for a view of how Chrome's sync works.
- It's a tablet solution, too. ChromeOS apps will run equally well on the iPad, Android tablets, the coming Blackberry PlayBook, and your old Windows and MacOS computers. All you need is a modern browser. In fact, Blackberry has announced it's discouraging the development of proprietary applications, favoring HTML5. Think about what this means. Everything works everywhere.
- It's blazingly fast to boot up. This raises the competitive bar for everybody.
- A mountain of annoyances has vanished overnight. Computers can be pure hell for anyone who doesn't enjoy constantly having to crack technical puzzles. The idea behind ChromeOS is to power an appliance that Just Works, requires no configuration, no drivers, no software updates (they're automagic), and suffers from no viruses. About that ....
- It's secure by design. Linux is inherently more secure than the alternatives, but ChromeOS goes well beyond that, trusting no one. This is a Hugely Good Thing, and another case of raising the competitive bar. We've all suffered for years from viruses and spam botnets enabled by poor security in the old desktop world.
I haven't had my hands on Google's Cr-48 evaluation unit, but I've kept tabs on Hexxeh's open ChromiumOS, which in turn tracks Google's development path, and of course I've been using Chrome as my Web browser almost exclusively for quite some time.
I don't feel an urge to abandon my desktop environment (I run Ubuntu) but I have to admit that I really only use two non-Web applications with any frequency. One is Thunderbird, which arguably is easily replaced with Gmail. The other is Gedit, a programmer's text editor, and most people don't write code.
Maybe cheap, secure, fast, safe, easy to use netbooks will succeed alongside tablets. Maybe keyboards will go the way of the dodo. I don't think it makes a whole lot of difference, because the work that's gone into ChromeOS isn't wasted. This is a game-changer regardless of which team you play for.