Google Cr-48: Inside the Chrome OS 'unstable isotope'
Mountain View goes to extremes
Review Microsoft gives you the Windows Explorer. Apple gives you the Mac OS X Finder. And Google gives you, well, nothing. With Google's Chrome OS – the browser-based operating system that reached a handful of outside beta testers late last week – there's no ready means of browsing files on your own machine.
In their lightning reviews of Google's beta machine – the Cr-48 – many technorati testers decried this inability to browse local files. One called it a "major oversight," hunting for workarounds that give him at least a partial glimpse of his own hard drive, and many seem to believe Google will tack on some sort of file explorer before the first official machines ship next year. But this, shall we say, misses the mark. It's bit like arguing that Microsoft will soon open source its Windows code.
With Chrome OS, Google's fundamental aim is to shift all your files and applications onto the web. There's no local file explorer because Google wants you to forget about your local file system. Completely.
The trouble is that many people aren't likely to forget their local file system – at least not any time soon. Those early reviewers miss the point entirely, but for that very reason, they're worth listening to. After years of using traditional desktops and laptops, you may find that an all-browser operating system takes some getting used to – particularly if it's still in beta. We've used our Cr-48 for several days now. We can confirm both that it's an all-browser operating system and that it's still in beta.
In other words, it's oh so very Google.
For better or for worse – and probably both – Chrome OS is the Google ethos taken to extremes. Google has long told us that everything will eventually happen on the web – from word processing to music listening to photo editing – and now, with the sort of cold rationality the company is famous for, it's building an OS that seeks to fulfill this prophesy.
What's more, Google is building this OS much as it builds web services: as an eternal work-in-progress. The company that kept Gmail "in beta" for five years is now offering beta notebooks to at least a portion of the general public, and if you ask whether a particular feature will arrive with the official OS next year, it tells you not to think in such terms. If a particular feature doesn't arrive on day one, Google says, it'll show up with update at some point in the undetermined future. Or words to that effect.
We should also point out that Cr-48 isn't a model number. It's one of those shameless geeky inside jokes Google is so fond of. The company is developing Chrome OS via the open source Chromium OS project, and Cr-48 is reference to chromium, the chemical element. It's a chromium isotope – a particularly unstable chromium isotope.
Google's beta netbook so unstable, there are cases where it launches a file explorer that lets you browser local files. Reviewers have seized on this as an indication that Chrome OS will indeed offers access to the local file system. But a company spokesperson tells us it's a bug.
This is the Cr-48. It's far from finished, and it's a far cry from your traditional notebook.
The all-black Cr-48 measures 0.9- by 11.8- by 8.6-inches and weighs about 3.6 pounds. It's not as svelte as Apple's Mac Book Air, but it's considerably more portable than, say, a MacBook Pro. The display measures 12.1-inches across the diagonal, and the keyboard is full sized, though Google has rejiggered a few keys. The traditional Caps Lock key is now a search key that opens up a new browser tab within the OS – what do you expect from the world's largest search engine? – and function keys have given way to various keys for adjusting volume and screen brightness and actually navigating the OS.
The machine's touchpad handles left-clicks, right-clicks, and scrolling as well as basic navigation. It's not nearly as adept as, well, an Apple touchpad, but after a little practice, we had few problems using it. The system also offers a USB port, a good old fashioned VGA port, an SD slot, a headphone jack, and a built-in camera. Google says it's still working to provide USB driver support, with cameras as the primary, er, focus.
Presumably, the first official Chrome OS machines will include Google's revamped keyboard, but it's otherwise unclear how closely they'll resemble the Cr-48. According to Google, the first machines will ship from Acer and Samsung in "the middle of next year."
Chrome OS runs only on flash-based devices, not traditional spinning hard drives. As it moves the operating system to the browser, Google is also working to reduce boot and resume times. A year ago, the company boasted that its Chrome OS netbooks booted in less than 7 seconds. The Cr-48 isn't quite so quick. Our boot times are closer to 12 seconds, and though resumes are quite snappy, they aren't as "instant" as Google claims.
You log into the OS with, yes, the name and password from your existing Google account. The first time you log-in, the OS tries to snap your photo. This being Google, it's all a bit creepy. But the company seems to realize this. It gives the option of skipping the photo, and it tells us that when you use Chrome OS, Google collects no more data about your habits than it would if you were using the plain old Chrome browser on Windows or Mac.
Of course, the machine is designed to nudge the world into posting its scads of personal data on Google servers – something that free software king Richard Stallman and others aren't too happy about. When you log-in with your Google account, the OS automatically logs you into the company's myriad online services, from its search engine to Gmail to Google Docs. Sometime in the future, Google says, it'll switch to a standard means of authentication, such as OpenID. But at the moment, when you sign into your machine, you sign into Google and Google only.
On the flip-side, Google also offers a "guest" log-in mode, which opens up an anonymous browser session. Under guest mode, pages viewed won't appear in browser or search history, and it doesn't leave cookies, bookmarks, or downloaded files. According to Google, all trace of the session vanishes when you sign out. And naturally, the session is completely separate from standard mode sessions. You can't see a guest's data, and they can't see yours.
When you first log-in to the machine – in standard mode, via your Google account – the OS opens up a browser tab with a brief "Get Started" tutorial. This covers everything from the touchpad, the keyboard, and standby and startup to guest mode to the Chrome Web Store. Google opened Chrome Web Store on the same day it unveiled the Cr-48, offering an online marketplace for buying and selling extensions, themes, and web apps. At this point, the store is specific to Chrome OS and the Chrome browser, but Google has told us it's "open" to the idea of expanding – at least in some ways – to third-party browsers.
When you open a new tab in OS, you're given a kind of "home" screen that offers access to the Web Store, your bookmarks, and your "installed" web apps. With the Web Store, Google mimics app installation within the browser. Google divides these installable apps into two categories: hosted apps and packaged apps. A hosted app is a just website with some extra metadata that lets you easily return to the app again and again. A packaged apps is a web app that you can actually download, and these can use the Chrome Extension APIs.
When you "install" an app via the Web Store, a launch icon shows up on your tabbed home screen, and double-clicking the icon launches the app in the same tab. Some apps and extensions will also add an icon to the top of your browser window, and some use separate "panel" windows that appear in the top left or bottom right of the main window.
As said – so many times – you can't install local apps outside the browser. And naturally, this limits your (traditional) options. In order to use the El Reg instant messaging service of choice – Yahoo! Messenger – we had to either install a shoddy third-party-built extension for the Yahoo! Messenger network or use Yahoo!'s web-based app. We couldn't install, ahem, iTunes. But we do have the option of using a webby alternative, such as the subscription-based MOG.
Likewise, you can't save data outside the browser. But you can download files – and upload them too. When you download a file, it appears in a panel window in the bottom left hand side of your screen, and when you click on the file, it appears in a new browser tab – if it uses a browser friendly file type. Otherwise, you'll have to find a web app that can read.
Uploads are similar. When you click on a web app's upload button, a file window appears in the middle of the screen. It points to the same folder where your downloads are stored. With some sites (apparently Flash sites), clicking on an upload button brings up the OS's Linux file structure. But again, a company spokesman tells us this is a bug.
Yes, Google's (somewhat) artificial restrictions on local apps and data can be annoying. To snap screenshots for this story, we had to track down the screenshot hot-key combination – which isn't documented. Then we uploaded the pics to the online Picnic photo editing service for resizing. Then we moved them back down to our machine. Then we moved them back up to our CMS.
It should also go without saying that Chrome OS is close to useless if you don't have an internet connection. Some apps do offer limited offline access, such as The New York Times new installable Chrome app, and these apps will likely become more prevalent. But for the most part, if you try to use the OS while offline, you get error messages. But you can still take screenshots:
To mitigate this inconvenience, Google includes built-in 3G connectivity as well as WiFi. In the US, Mountain View has teamed with Verizon to offer 100MB of data per month for free for the first two years, and there's no longterm contract. But to get the free data, you have to provide a credit card. Plans providing additional data start at $9.99 a day.
The networking setup is almost seamless – and wonderfully simple. Chrome OS offers limited "settings" screen that handles not only networking but other basic needs, including the system clock, passwords, privacy, and security.
Google takes a multilayered approach to security. Every webpage and app you visit is restricted to its own sandbox, and if malware escape the sandbox, Google does a verified boot at startup in an effort to detect system tampering. Plus, like the Chrome browser, Chrome OS is automatically updated with security patches. Google calls this "defense in depth," and it's one good reason to the use OS.
The question is whether it's reason enough.
Google also pitches its Chrome OS machine as a kind of disposable computer. If you lose it, you don't lose your data or your apps. Chrome OS includes a sync tool that saves your OS settings, data, and docs on Google's servers. When you log-in with a new machine, your setup is there waiting for you.
When you consider this alongside Google's guest mode and its multilayered security, Chrome OS begins to look mighty attractive. If you're a business. And you're not adverse to storing all your company data on Google servers.
If you're the average consumer, it's likely not for you. But it is in beta. Come back in, say, another five years. ®