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I’ve been having fun fooling around with Google’s Cr-48 notebook, the experimental machine which runs its Chrome OS. (The company is doling out thousands of Cr-48 test units, but Chrome OS laptops won’t go on sale until next year.) I even took the Cr-48 on a long-weekend trip and pretty much got everything done that I needed to do. (For instance, I wrote this column on it, using Google Docs.)
But when I returned home from my trip, I put the Cr-48 away and haven’t returned to it since. I’m sure I’ll revisit it. But for now, given a choice between a Chrome OS laptop and a traditional laptop (my MacBook Air), I’m opting for the latter.
How come? It’s simple, really: Chrome OS both giveth and taketh away. What it giveth is simplicity and security–since it’s pretty much just a Web browser that’s sprouted stubby little legs that let it function (just barely) as an operating system, there’s very little that can go wrong. It boots and snaps out of suspend mode in a jiffy; it’s almost impossible to lose data, since it’s all stored in the cloud; it should be as close to impervious to viruses and trojans as a computing device can be.
But Google accomplished all this by creating an operating system that can’t run local applications. And for now, at least, losing local apps is a gigantic downside. If you’re in love with the notion of a Web-only computer, you may love the Cr-48; if you just want to accomplish stuff, it’s a work in progress at best.
(Note: Google will presumably address some of Chrome OS’s current limitations, such as the near-impossibility of transferring photos from an SD card, before commercial machines go on sale.)
In late 2010, there are applications that work far better in Web-based form than they ever could as a desktop program. (Can you imagine Facebook as a piece of Windows software?) There are ones which work well both on the Web and in desktop form, such as e-mail. And there are ones that are useful in at least certain circumstances on the Web, such as office suites.
But there are also applications that just plain work better as desktop software. Photo-editing, for instance–I love the Web-based Picnik, but I’d go bonkers if it were the only image editor I had. (It’s fun for casual editing of one or two pictures, but not so good for blasting through a bunch of photos as fast as possible.)
I also don’t know of a Web-based presentation service that’s a truly satisfactory PowerPoint replacement, at least for single users. (SlideRocket is far better than PowerPoint in some respects, but it’s really designed and priced for workgroup use.)
And then there’s any instance in which you can’t get online. Chrome OS has a few features for offline usage–the Google Docs word processor can run without a connection, for instance–but for the most part, it’s meant to be used online. Even the best purely Web-based app can’t compete with desktop software if you just can’t get to it.
So as I used the Cr-48, I kept thinking to myself “this is neat–but it would be even neater with a local app or two.” Slate’s Farhad Manjoo makes a similar point in a story called “I Want Chromedroid.”
Google clearly doesn’t agree–here’s a recent blog post titled “Nothing but the Web,” a title which is meant as a manifesto, although it’s also a summary of Chrome OS’s limitations. Turning Chrome OS into a more traditional operating system would be tantamount to admitting it was a bad idea; I’m guessing Google would kill it (or merge it into Android) first.
I don’t want to sound like a Luddite. I use Web-based apps around 85 percent of the time, and that percentage will only grow. It may hit 100 percent. For now, though, the desktop apps I use
25 15 percent of the time are essential to my work. They’re not options, and I don’t see why I should give them up.
So I’m sticking with traditional computers for now. Yes, they’re imperfect. But you can install Google’s Chrome browser on a Windows PC or Mac, run it in full-screen mode, and then load local apps whenever the urge strikes. Isn’t that much closer to the best of both worlds than using an operating system that offers Chrome and nothing else?