Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Life with the Hamster: Chrome OS Delivers as Promised

My son is delighted with his new Chrome Cr-48 laptop, which dad manages to "borrow" a bit whilst awaiting the Samsung version of a Chrome OS machine. It's not much skin off his nose, of course, because with Chrome OS your presence is a login: when I get another unit I will simply power it up and all of my configuration will be there, and when he logs in there will be no noticeable trace of my diddling with it. But in the meantime, it gave me an opportunity to prepare for today's Chrome OS-oriented events at Google I/O2011 using one of 10,000 Cr-48s built for the Chrome OS pilot programme and to consider further where this shift in laptop systems is taking us.

First off, the machine delivers as promised - which is to say, Chrome OS does everything that one would expect it to quite elegantly, though the Cr-48 hardware is a bit challenged to act as a full-replacement unit for people watching high-definition videos and other functions that require more graphics and processing oomph. That aside, this is a unit that is enormously appealing in its deceiving simplicity and starkness, as alluded to in the mirthful graphics on its box, which feature a diagram for a mythical hamster-wheel-powered jet engine. An apt analogy - it's a lightweight machine that's easy to operate and packs a surprising punch. It's like a stealth PC, matte finish all around, no markings, ports for a VGA monitor, an SD card, a USB device, a headphone jack, a webcam, a keyboard and a touchpad - that's it. It powers up in easily under eight seconds to login prompt, making it faster than any of my current Web-aware appliances, including my smart phone, and is ready to work recovering from a sleep mode almost as quickly as you can raise the screen.

Configuration is a breeze, though at first the simplicity of the touchpad hides the fact that you can click on the bottom edge of it to get left-mouse-click functionality. You can configure the unit easily to respond to single taps on the touchpad as a click also. A right-click is a tap with two fingers and scrolling can be dragging two fingers up or down. I found the scrolling gesture to be a bit finicky at times, leading to using the alt-down keys sometimes, but not a great hardship for a day-one technology. The keyboard is abbreviated in comparison to PC layouts, but except for trying to highlight a line of text for copying or deleting, I was able to figure out most functions in a trice (I figured out the copy/delete function eventually).

Being a Chrome browser user already, moving in was easy, thanks to Chrome's syncing ability that enables even your PC-based browser to share settings with the Cr-48. In a few minutes I had my usual Chrome extensions installed and my favorite Web apps, while guiding my son to some apps that he can use in his config. There is the beginnings of an "advanced file system" that will enable Chrome OS to read and write files on its SD card reader drive and inserted USB drives, but for the moment production users will have to wait for the launch of the newly announced Samsung and Acer units to do anything with this feature; right now it just lists files on those drives but will not be able to read or write them. That may be an option that some enterprises would prefer, perhaps.

Other reminders that there's almost nothing on this machine beyond a Chrome OS browser with caching are minimal. There's a timestamp, a signal meter and a battery meter in the upper-right corner of the tabs level of the browser, which allow you to control the related functions. Setup on Verizon's broadband wireless service via this utility was simple, though at 100MB of monthly free access it's not quite the bargain that I had hoped. Still, for those times when you're punting into the city for a meeting, carrying a lighter machine may make this worth it. Worst case, I can use my Nexus S for a tethered signal.

In the browser itself it's essentially like any other Chrome browser experience, with few reminders that there's anything unusual about it. On a unit like this Google's Cloud Print comes in handy, and works great - it all happens in the cloud literally in this instance, since as far as I can tell there's no data transfer of the page from the Cr-48 itself involved. Except for video performance, I found no content that wouldn't run due to performance issues on the CR-48, though The Wilderness Downtown, an HTML 5 experimental multimedia show, didn't have an optimal look given how Chrome OS manages pop-up HTML windows. Of course there are situations like Microsoft's Office 365, their cloud-oriented productivity suite, that are intentionally not optimized for Chrome, but that aside it's a good-to-go unit for the Web in all respects.

Am I ready to go all-cloud? Almost, but not quite. Being in a company that services major enterprises and major conferences, we're stuck with having to produce Powerpoint presentations and other artifacts of the PC era still, so Microsoft still has some hooks into our plans. But having just completed a lengthy migration of software and files on my PC from Windows XP to Windows 7, except for Office and some high-end media production tools there's little that would stop me from going all-cloud. There are some reasonable substitutes in the cloud for these services, so in a pinch I can mange "as is" with Chrome OS. In the meantime, with Chrome OS I can leave my laptop on home for most trips and stay productive with Chrome OS for 95 percent of the work that I do on a daily basis, picking up in the cloud where I left off in the cloud seamlessly. And for the short trip to the sofa in the evening, Chrome OS can keep me connected to the Web more efficiently for many things with just a few seconds required to get there.

So now the hamster, as we've nicknamed the Cr-48, goes off to my son, who will figure out how to migrate our bookkeeping to the cloud, an important goal for us. I wonder whether we'll see a point when the Chrome OS engine gets merged with Google's Android OS. My guess is that we will on some level next year, if security and performance issues can be managed. Given the wide array of accessory and autonomous devices that will be integrated into the Ice Cream Sandwich release of Android, it would seem to make sense to enable Chrome OS to "talk" to that hardware more easily - and to make it more easy for people to access their favorite Android apps while in laptop mode. But my guess is that Android/Chrome integration will happen mostly in the cloud, perhaps with a browser extension that will enable an Android virtual machine of sorts for apps.

In the meantime, I think that the intentionally low-cost profile of Chrome OS is going to be a hit with major enterprises, students and others who are needing to be more productive than tablets can keep them. It could also, potentially, power units that accelerate Web literacy in less developed nations, a OLPC substitute that's fully Web-literate. With rumors floating around of a $20/month cloud service plan for Chrome OS units, the concept of a free unit isn't unthinkable. Welcome to our home, hamster, we're glad to have you.
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