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Editorial: Chrome OS is what I want, but not what I need

Editorial: Chrome OS is what I want, but not what I need
Paul Miller
Paul Miller|@futurepaul|November 19, 2009 4:20 PM
There's obviously something seriously wrong with me, since the idea of a feature-stripped OS that over-relies on a web browser at the expense of more powerful single-purpose apps has delightful shivers running up my spine. In fact, in a fleeting moment of ill-advised adulation, I was considering buying a netbook with solid state storage so that I'd be all prepped to hack this pre-release version of Chrome OS onto it and web-app to my heart's content. The real issue is that at the end of the day I know I'm always (well, for the next few years at least) going to be too reliant on "heavyweight" desktop applications like audio, video and image editors to really cut the cord and stuff my whole life into the cloud. But the chimes of freedom flashing in Chrome OS are too great to ignore, and I think there's plenty going on here that could be very beneficial to a "real" desktop OS.

Built-in Google notifications

Why do mobile phones get all the fun? It seems we've been so focused on getting great, functional push updates into mobile operating systems like Android and webOS that we've forgotten that we spend most of the time on our desktop or laptop computer, thoroughly confused by the amount of communication whizzing past us. I shouldn't have to hack things into my OS as core to my life as an integrated notification tray that pulls in email, IM, calendar and Twitter updates. Luckily, it sounds like this is something Google is looking at bringing to the regular Chrome.

Drag and drop in the browser

Another instance of what appears to be a core Chrome OS competency that I've had to hack into my life -- in this case using the wonderful but fundamentally limited Mailplane. Why should it take an all-new OS to make dragging and dropping files to and from web applications a common occurrence? I also love the concept of plugging a drive or an accessory into my computer and its default action being to present itself to my browser. This does not sound like crazy talk to me.

Persistent panels

I love the pop-up IM window that can be minimized or moved to the sidebar, but sticks with me whatever tab I'm in. No word on these coming to the standard Chrome, but they should -- particularly with all these online music services these days breathing new life into the dreaded pop-up window.

Login-populated, portable user environment

If 90 percent of what I do is in a browser, why can't I take that environment with me with as a simple login? This is another thing mobile phones are starting to get into, particularly again with Android and webOS, and that I'm glad to see Firefox is bringing in version 4 with Weave.

Free but compatible

The idea of someone making open source software that's targeted at specific hardware and even dictates some of its environment shouldn't feel so refreshing. Android has struck a nice balance between a tightly regulated ecosystem of Google-approved "sure thing" devices and a wild west of non-Google devices powered by the open source elements of the OS. I've always been rebuffed by Linux due to the inconsistent hardware support and knowledge that if the system breaks I won't know how to fix it or get back to my data. The combination of the cloud-reliance and Google's heavyweight status means I could actually see myself buying a Google-branded 3rd party device -- a monetary commitment that I've never felt Ubuntu quite merited, despite its multitude of partnerships. I'd love to see a company like HP (for instance) go beyond mere skinning of Ubuntu and really commit to stepping on Microsoft's toes and investing in an open source desktop operating system to the point that it can offer true competition.

But... I still need my real OS

Google's concept of a Chrome OS device as a second computer is probably my largest point of departure. I think these features are things that should be built into a "real" OS, and I don't want to juggle two different laptops of minimal physical distinction. (A phone + laptop makes sense, I'm not sure a phone + netbook + laptop does.) Sure, the security, stability and boot-time functions of Chrome OS are what set it apart from a traditional desktop OS, but those usually pretty low on my priority list: I haven't gotten a virus in seven years, my computer rarely crashes (Firefox on the other hand...), and I don't have to worry about boot time because my computer is always in sleep mode.

There's also the fact that many web apps have been designed to operate with a local storage of files to draw from (Flickr, YouTube, Gmail, blogging), so I'm not sure I want to juggle the appropriate USB stick everytime I want to be more than a passive consumer of content -- if all my creation takes place in Google silos, I actually start to become a less productive member of the web.

If Chrome OS can breath new life into low-powered hardware and provide a low-cost alternative for someone who just wants to do email and play Dolphin Olympics 2 on their netbook, then that's great, but for me, a self-described power user, I'd benefit more from watching these features land on my Mac and Windows and Ubuntu PCs than from waving goodbye to Photoshop and iMovie in exchange for a Google-built operating system.