Not All Chrome Glisters

The unveiling of Google's Chrome OS is rather extraordinary - not so much for what was announced, but how. After all, the first details of Chrome OS were revealed nearly 18 months ago: Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating...

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The unveiling of Google's Chrome OS is rather extraordinary – not so much for what was announced, but how. After all, the first details of Chrome OS were revealed nearly 18 months ago:

Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010. Because we're already talking to partners about the project, and we'll soon be working with the open source community, we wanted to share our vision now so everyone understands what we are trying to achieve.

Because Chrome OS is open source, it has been available for people to explore for some time, which means that it's not really possible for any elements of it to be a surprise, rather deflating any attempt to launch it in the traditional sense. But in yesterday's, er, confirmation, there were a number of new announcements separate from the underlying operating system.

For example, we now have the Chrome Web store:

Right now the store is only available in the U.S., but will expand to many countries and currencies early next year. The store will be featured prominently in Chrome, helping people discover great apps and developers reach millions of users around the world.

This should give concentrate minds at Mozilla somewhat, and encourage people to get moving with the Mozilla Web app store idea.

There's also news about some test hardware:

We're not done yet, but Chrome OS is at the stage where we need feedback from real users. Some of the features of Chrome OS require new hardware, but we didn't want to sell pre-beta computers. Instead we're launching a pilot program where we will give test notebooks to qualified users, developers, schools and businesses. We're starting with the U.S. and will expand to other countries once we get the necessary certifications. To participate in the pilot program, visit the Chrome notebook website.

The test notebooks exist only to test the software—they are black, have no branding, no logos, no stickers, nothing. They do have 12.1 inch screens, full-sized keyboards and touch pads, integrated 3G from Verizon, eight hours of battery life and eight days of standby time. Chrome notebooks are designed to reach the web instantly, are easy to share among friends and family, and simply by logging in, all of your apps, bookmarks and other browser settings are there. Setting up a new machine takes less than a minute. And even at this early stage, we feel there is no consumer or business operating system that is more secure.

Taken together with the Chrome OS Web pages, this gives us a number of important clues about the thinking behind Chrome OS.

This central theme of "reaching the web instantly", "Always connected" and "Amazing web apps" makes the Chrome OS system sound like nothing so much as a big, HTML-based mobile phone. All that's missing is a touchscreen – and I'm sure that's on its way.

Now, I have absolutely nothing against that as an idea: I already do a goodly proportion of my work – well, the reading and checking part – on my Android phone. But of course central to this vision is the following:

All your apps, documents, and settings are stored safely in the cloud. So even if you lose your computer, you can just log into another Chrome notebook and get right back to work.

As all we Gmail, Google Docs and Google Reader users know, that's extremely convenient in many ways. But as Wikileaks' current travails remind rather forcefully, its centralised approach is also a huge weakness: if the service provider decides for whatever reason, mistaken or otherwise, to deny you access, there is simply nothing you can do about it.

Indeed, as I wrote the other day, instead of putting ourselves at the mercy of single companies in this way, we need to think about decentralised solutions – ones that are inherently resilient to all kinds of failure.

Because it invites us to give up even more control over our own computing destiny – albeit in an impressively high-tech and nominally open-source way – Google's shiny new chrome rose turns out to have a dangerous canker at its heart.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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