A look at the Chrome Web Store shows a vibrant, lively catalog of software, allowing you to do anything from photo editing to playing games right in your browser. It is populated with many of the same titles as you would see in Apple’s iTunes App Store, from well-known applications to popular games.
Is it enough, though? Chrome OS has an edge over conventional operating systems — it’s only a web browser, after all. Low power consumption, low spec-requirements, and fast, reliable ease of use are its calling cards and it does those things extremely well… for a cost. Chrome OS doesn’t allow you to install actual applications at all; you are going to the Chrome Web Store in order to download (or purchase) web applications, which are really just shortcuts that appear on your “desktop” when you open a new tab.
Google Chrome OS was initially announced in July of 2009 and made open source as the Chromium Project that November, though the first beta test Cr-48 laptops (Chromebooks) didn’t ship until late December 2010. The Chrome Web Store has been filled to bursting with applications since that time. When Chrome OS was new and fledgling, many naysayers claimed it would not be robust enough, and that the breadth of web applications was too slim to really make a splash in the PC pond.
They could not be more wrong.
If you’re a power user that requires heavy computing power for resource intensive applications like video editing, CAD drawing and the like, Chrome OS is probably not going to be what you need – yet. The wonders of HTML5, Canvas, and enhancements to back-end web coding may one day make the need for beefy desktops go the way of the dinosaurs.
For the casual user, Chrome OS presents an opportunity to put all of your eggs into one basket. You turn it on (and it’s on fast) and you’re almost immediately looking at the icons of your applications after you log in. Your most-visited sites and recently-closed tabs are located conveniently at the bottom of the screen.
It can be pretty safely assumed that the average user will probably browse some news sites, play on social networks, perhaps watch a streaming video or two, and check their finances, perhaps in an afternoon at the PC. Chrome OS excels at all of those things. Users a bit more savvy might want to upload pictures to the web, and may need to edit those pictures before they’re ready to be seen in Google Plus; Chrome OS has those users covered as well. With themes and extensions, Google has made a simple browser operating system as customizable as it can be.
Speaking of a simple browser operating system, it should be said that saying that isn’t exactly true. Chrome OS is actually a web browser built on top of a custom Linux-based operating system. The user is kept in a sandbox, not allowed to install applications directly or change system settings. This creates a very secure environment for everyday computing without the need for antimalware or antivirus scanners.
Let’s take a casual user’s day and replace common applications with ones easily found (for free!) in the Web Store. Jane, let’s say, wakes up in the morning and checks her email first thing with a cup of coffee. After opening Gmail she browses her new messages, and then simply clicks on her Feedlyextension to instantly open a new tab containing all of the news from her Google Reader RSS feed, presented in a full, feature-rich magazine-like display that syncs with Jane’s social media as well.
Done with her morning coffee, Jane sits down to work. As a web designer, Jane needs a wide assortment of tools that are very specific to her job. She writes her code in Handcraft, Pendule oriScribe Tools, depending on what facet of coding she’s working on that day. All are WYSISWG editors, with iScribe having a feature-rich offline mode with code converter and code tidy applications. Image work is done in Pixlr Editor, a web-based editor so like Gimp or even Photoshop that you wouldn’t believe it’s free.
Occasionally Jane must do some of her own PHP or Ruby coding, and for that she uses Koding, a great online code editor with collaboration tools and a sync with SVN, Git, or Aviary, to keep her team in the loop. Speaking of her team, she’s in constant contact with them through Google Chat, and never misses an online meeting done through Gchat’s built-in video conferencing or the Hangout feature of Google Plus. She keeps track of her time and projects via TeamWork Live, and never has any issues knowing where she’s at with a particular project or schedule.
Every tool necessary is at her fingertips for a flowing, productive day, all in the browser.
What’s the catch? There’s always a catch, isn’t there? In Chrome OS’s case, its biggest asset is also its most glaring weakness: The internet. You have Google’s vision of the world at your fingertips when you’re connected. If you don’t have any internet access, though, there’s not much you can do with a browser OS that runs web applications. Your trusty Chrome OS laptop isn’t something you can take with you on that remote camping trip; although to be fair the Web Store has more and more offline tools popping up every day. There’s room to grow there, certainly, but users should be aware that Google’s OS brainchild is meant to be tethered to the internet in some fashion.
Now, power users do have some realistic issues to deal with. Chromebooks aren’t exactly brimming with power, so you’ll notice some heavy sites loading slowly as the hardware strains a bit. If you tend to have a ton of tabs open, you’ll notice everything slowing down the more you open, and there’s always slight latency in the machine when a new tab is loaded. These things probably wouldn’t be noticed by an average user, but a power user already skeptical of not being able to install their favorite apps will probably be looking for such difficulties, and they do exist.
What’s the bottom line? Chrome OS is a lively mobile operating system that contains more computing power than most users need. Its abundance of tools available online make it the go-to machine in almost every situation where portability, speed, and ease of use factor highly. For those that require more computing power there’s always Chromium, Google’s open source of Chrome OS that can be installed on almost any hardware, affording users more punch for their apps.
As a writer, I almost exclusively use my now-long-in-the-tooth Cr-48 Chrome OS laptop I received back in December of 2010 to sit and write with. Some of the newer Web Store apps are starting to give it a hard time, as the newer Chromebook hardware has improvements and upgrades my little laptop lacks. I’m a power user in almost every sense of the word, but with the portability and comfort that Chrome OS affords me I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of speed and raw computing power. I rarely leave home without it, and it’s the only computer I bring to events and trips.
It might have been released ahead of its time, in a world still gripped tight in the meaty fist of Microsoft’s Windows empire, but Chrome OS is a star that’s rising. I’d keep an eye on it, and if you get a chance, try it out. You won’t regret it.