I spent some time yesterday and today playing around with Google's new Chrome OS. Chrome OS also calls itself chromium, which I think is actually a better name. Chrome OS/Chromium is a lightweight, web-oriented operating system from Google. It's more derivative of their Chrome browser than the Android operating system developed for handhelds. I tested Chrome on my tablet PC using a vmware image.
In many ways, Chrome is trying to accomplish what the Internet appliances like the 3Com Audrey, i-Opener and the Compaq iPaqs tried to do a decade ago. I have an Audrey and an iPaq here on my desk. They are nearly as useful now as they were when they were new, which is to say, not very. The idea then was to provide a simple hardware device with a lightweight OS that was strictly provided Internet-related functionality - email, browsing, IM, etc., to an audience that was not prepared or willing to deal with the complexity of operating and maintaining a PC. It never really worked, mostly because the appliances weren't very price competitive with bargain PC's of the time.
The other feat that Chrome attempts to perform is the realization of another idea that was talked about a decade ago - when the big online software giant was Netscape and everyone wondered when/how they would create an operating system and Sun was telling us how the network is the computer. The target platform for Chrome OS is going to be netbooks, which typically have low power CPU's and limited local storage (not unlike the appliances). Where Chrome differs is that from the user's point of view the browser *is* the OS. Other than a few config popups, there is no other interface to the computer other than the Chrome browser.
So, it's new, but is it any good? Technically, it seems to function well. Chrome is a decent browser and the default "apps" installed (really, they are nothing more than bookmarks to online services) covers all the basic Google services - Gmail, Calendar, Reader, Contacts as well as a handful of social services like facebook & twitter, and video sites like youtube and hulu. Other than hulu which doesn't work in Canada, everything I tried seemed to work properly. I was even able to use flash-based apps like pixlr. So on that front and from the perspective of accomplishing the goal of building a browser-only OS, I'd have to say, yes it is very good.
However, the question I keep thinking to myself is "Why?" The target hardware platform of netbooks already come with full featured operating systems (either Windows XP/7 or some form of Linux) and run any of the popular browsers. They are also capable of running many programs that don't have online equivalents and more crucially, the ability to be useful when they are NOT connected to the internet. With a device running Chrome, if you have no connection, you really have nothing more than a paperweight. Perhaps Google has plans to incorporate some Gears-like functionality for offline use, but that doesn't appear to be the case yet.
What is the use case for carrying a device like a netbook that has zero offline capability? Coupled with built-in 3G and a reasonably priced data plan (do they exist?) one could approach full-time connectivity, in which case you'd have something that's almost as useful as the iPhone. You'd be trading light weight and portability for a keyboard and a slightly larger screen. IF you actually stopped carrying the phone, which isn't likely. What about filling the home internet appliance niche? Yes, Chrome could do that easily and that would provide the always-on connection, but it's not clear that a market ever truly existed for those kind of devices. Maybe this time around will be different. The only plausible application I can imagine is a not-yet-invented class of ultra-cheap netbooks - priced at $99 or less. Something like that could probably take the wind out of the sales (ewwww) of the Peek dedicated task devices.
The last puzzling bit for me relates to how I use online or cloud-based services now. For me the main advantage of using online applications is that I'm not limited to having data, documents, email on just one computer. I move around to several different computers and operating systems each day and having all my stuff available and pretty much where I left it makes those transitions much easier. Even better, I don't even have to be using one of my own computers, I can use any connected computer to access my online resources and applications without the need to carry around my own device.
Bottom line is that Chrome is a reasonably impressive technical achievement that at best will fill a small niche within a slightly larger niche (netbooks without hard drives). Maybe that's all it's intended to do. Anyone that already has a netbook can approximate the experience by running their browser fullscreen and making their homepage a page of links to all their favorite online apps that open up in new tabs. That's basically the Chrome experience.