At this moment, our computers are capable of way more than we need them to be. Photos, e-mail, Web, music, a little video. We shame our powerhouse machines with this wimpy activity. It's like driving a Ferrari to the corner store and back. So Google decided to build a Beetle. And it's going to be huge.
In the past two weeks, Google has started sending out its pilot notebook for testing. Dubbed Cr-48 — a reference to its Chrome operating system — it is little more than a Web browser tucked inside a netbook. Yes, all it does is surf the Web. The device is actually a temporary stand-in. Actual Chrome OS notebooks from Acer and Samsung won't be hitting the market until the middle of this year, once the kinks are ironed out.
I've been using the Cr-48 for about a week, and I like it more than I thought possible. Its body is a rubberized matte black with no markings — none whatsoever — and its 12-inch screen and full-size keyboard make it feel like a real live laptop. Open it up, log in with your Gmail account, and up comes the browser. "Apps," basically glorified Web links, and all the system settings live inside that tabbed interface. There is no desktop.
I could tell you all the ins and outs of using it, but you can essentially already try it yourself. Just download Google's Chrome browser, and then head over to the Web app store and you will get pretty much the entire Chrome experience. Even the Cr-48's video chat, via Google Talk, can be duplicated inside a Chrome browser running on pretty much any webcam-equipped notebook.
Though the device feels quite nice, with some cute aesthetic tweaks such as the Search button that doubles as a new tab button, there is a lot of unfinished business, hence the delayed start. Google admits that though there's a USB port and an SD card reader, they don't quite serve a purpose yet. Printing via Google's Web Print is still a beta affair. And it's not clear what would become of all of the files you've already accumulated in your life — the photos, music and movies — if you were to make a full transition to the cloud notebook.
Nevertheless, there are three major reasons why Google's little notebook could shake foundations — particularly those of msnbc.com's co-owner, Microsoft:
Security - Our computers do so much now, they've become a liability. The only people who know how to take advantage of all their functionality are the people writing malicious code. Microsoft and every other OS builder have established decent security, but the weak point is usually the user, who clicks a page or opens an e-mail that they're not supposed to. Locks are no good when you leave the front door open.
Malware won't go away anytime soon, but in the case of Chrome OS, there's not as much that could happen. A good chunk of the OS itself is locked inside read-only memory, and on every restart the whole system is scanned, any signs of trouble addressed. There are no applications in the Windows/Mac sense, just the Web-based apps with limited access to the core of the system software. I'm not saying people won't be able to hack these — in fact hackers will be buying these by the bushel if the price is right. But I am saying that there will be a lot less they'll be able to do to yours.
This news is most joyful to IT professionals, beleaguered souls who have been driven crazy by security concerns for something like a million years. They'll want to check these out, and if they pass muster, deploy them to sales forces and grunt workers en masse.
Wireless - Since a Chrome notebook is as good as a not-very-good doorstop when it's not connected to the Internet, Google has a mandate to ensure wireless connectivity all the time. For most people, home Wi-Fi is already in place, ditto for workplaces and schools. But Google is ensuring that in other venues, there will be a hook-up from Verizon Wireless. A "free" hook-up, I might add.
Verizon is promising 100 megabytes of free connection per month for two years for every Chrome notebook. I should warn you, 100 MB is a paltry quantity these days — the equivalent of refreshing your favorite media-rich website 40 times. But it's reassuring, knowing that it's there when you're not in a Wi-Fi hotspot and just want to check on that rental car reservation or reply to an important e-mail with something more than your two thumbs on a smart phone.
There are other laptops with this kind of wireless connectivity, of course, but here's where battery life comes into play. The Chrome OS notebook has a battery life similar to an iPad and other flash-memory devices, and sleeps for real when the case is closed. When you open it up, it's rarin' to go. I have never met a Windows notebook that could sleep well, and even a Mac drains during long hibernations. And when they're awake, more complex operating systems churn away with background functions that cause extra drain. With Chrome's simple OS, that just doesn't happen.
The cloud - Although definitions of the term "the cloud" can get, well, cloudy, this is where it really applies. All of the data — photos, music, video, work documents — you're meant to access on this machine are supposed to live elsewhere in the ether. It's no surprise that Google already has a lot of this in place — you can open Word docs and PDFs using Google Docs, and you can sort and do some heavy photo editing on Picasa's Web albums, all without installing software. It's also no surprise that, despite the fact that Microsoft and Apple have online services, Google is the heavily weighted favorite in the cloud fight.
What might work against it
There's talk of Chrome being canceled, or grown into a fuller operating system with Android attributes, but I think either would be a mistake. However, these are the factors that stand in the way of a Chrome OS success:
Cost - This thing has to be super-duper cheap or it won't go anywhere. Microsoft makes about half of its massive income by charging computer makers for Windows. Google makes its money through ads and other services, so it doesn't need to charge for this. That savings must be passed on to buyers. There's no touchscreen to drive up the cost, and it doesn't have to be wafer thin, so it will automatically be cheaper than a tablet. My money is on the $200 mark. If it's $199 or less, it'll be a big hit; likewise, if it's over $299, it just won't make sense.
Tablets - Even if it doesn't compete on price with iPads and Android tabs, it's going to compete for the same audience. In short, if you have a tablet, you won't want this also. As the tablet market heats up and eats into laptop sales, this device — like other low-powered notebooks — seems to be in the most vulnerable spot.
Android - While both Apple and Microsoft have two operating systems — one for computers, another for mobile devices — it would seem smart for Google to just go with one that can kick butt on multiple fronts. That one would have to be Android. The mobile OS already powers e-book readers and set-top boxes, so why not let it drive a netbook? Internally, this may be a debate Google is already having. Android is a juggernaut, already a household name. Because of this, it could deal the most devastating blow to the Chrome project.
Developers and content owners - Google hasn't done a very good job of wooing the developers who want to charge users for their wares. There are lots of social, networked get-connected, get-informed apps for Android, but if you want streaming movies, top-tier game franchises, interactive children's entertainment, all of the truly differentiating content, you have to look to Apple (and, perhaps soon, Windows Phone 7). Chrome OS, like Google TV, presupposes that everything you want is just out there on the Internet, and that you can get it if you just have a Web browser. Alas, Google TV fell apart because it didn't have great app support, and more importantly, that content owners didn't want their content shared through the browser. Not without remuneration. Google needs to prove that it respects developers, and to make more friends in Hollywood.
Obstacles aside, the final challenge is us. Can we live up to the Chrome OS catch phrase, "Nothing but the Web"?
In a few years, that'll be a definite yes, for pretty much everyone. Even now, it's true for many, not just nerds who have embraced the Google way of life, but all of those people who skipped the first 25 years of the PC revolution. These people reluctantly got on board for e-mail and Web, and to do it had to buy ridiculously overwrought machines. They're going to wise up, and realize that they've been paying for too much computer. It's those people who should ditch their churning, wheezing desktop PCs, grab some Chrome, and reach for the cloud. The rest of us will be there by and by.