Google's forthcoming Chrome OS, released in preliminary form as open source code on Thursday, promises a major hardware transition, one that the rest of the PC industry has anticipated but not yet fully embraced: It will not support hard disk drives (at least until some enterprising developer writes the appropriate drivers).
Instead, Chrome OS will rely on solid-state memory, internally and externally, in the form of USB flash drives and SD cards. And it won't need much of that since, as Sundar Pichai, VP of product management at Google, put it, "All data in Chrome OS is in the cloud."
While Google's thin-client vision might look like an attempt to dispossess people of their local files and to encourage a rental paradigm over an ownership model -- a shift major media companies would support -- it appears that Pichai's statement describes Chrome's preferred, but not exclusive, mode of operation.
In an e-mail, a Google spokesperson said that while Chrome OS is still being developed and peripheral support is still incomplete, "we expect that you should be able to download attachments from an e-mail onto some sort of removable storage device like a USB drive or an SD card."
Chrome OS will provide a way for users to specify the Web application used to open specific file types. Presumably, this mapping mechanism will also include a setting to save a file locally rather than open it with a specific application, a choice offered by other Web browsers. And even if Google chose not to implement this option, an open source Chromium build could do so.
Having this flexibility will make Chrome OS much more useful.
With local caching turned off and no local storage, a Chrome OS netbook will offer business travelers the best protection against industrial espionage, apart from not carrying a computing device at all.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security advised business leaders and U.S. officials to "leave [electronic devices] at home" when traveling to avoid "unauthorized access and theft of data by criminal and foreign government elements."
In cases where that's not practical, DHS suggested using a designated travel laptop with a minimum of information on it.
A Chrome OS netbook, perhaps with a few proprietary tweaks to disable any form of local caching, appears to fit the bill.
And if local storage is necessary -- say you want to review 100 gigabytes of video on an external flash drive -- at least it will be an option.
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