The latest version of Chrome OS looks more like a desktop operating system than ever. Is this Google's way of admitting it was wrong to limit us to the Web?
Google has released a new version of Chrome OS for the handful of programmers with Acer AC700 and Samsung Series 5 Chromebooks who are tuned to the company's developer channel. The update makes Chrome OS more like Windows or OS X--just the sort of desktop operating systems that Chrome aimed to make obsolete.
"Our vision with Chrome OS is to provide a user experience that gets better every six weeks," a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "One of the areas we've thought a lot about is the desktop and windows manager environment, and creating a simpler, more intuitive experience for our users. As the latest version of Chrome OS is released into the beta channel, our users will begin to see some of these changes."
There are actually more than a handful of Chrome OS users on the developer channel. How many more? Google won't say, and that's seldom a good sign. In its quarterly investor conference calls since partners Acer and Samsung introduced Chrome OS hardware last summer, Google has yet to mention Chromebook adoption figures. Google executives regularly celebrate the number of people using the company's Chrome browser--200 million CEO Larry Page recently noted--but their silence about Chrome OS usage has been ominous.
Among other improvements, such as better support for multiple monitors, Chrome browser version 19.0.1048.17--identified as version 2046.20.0 of Chrome OS--includes a revised UI and an updated Window Manager. Practically speaking, this means that Google is allowing Chromebook users--excluding early adopters with Google's own Cr-48 Chromebook prototypes--to look beyond the browser to the desktop underneath.
In previous versions of Chrome OS, the browser window could not be removed. It was as if Google had nailed the browser pane over the desktop. Without local files to manipulate, access to the desktop on a Chrome OS machine doesn't mean much. But Chrome OS does support the storage of some user files, such as media downloads, and Google might make these more accessible by allowing them to be manipulated outside of Chrome OS's browser-based file list.
The new Aura Desktop Window Manager treats browser windows as windows that can be moved, to reveal a desktop area, and can be separated into discrete UI elements. The Chrome browser in Chrome OS now works more or less like it does on Windows or OS X hardware. It even includes a taskbar for launching Web apps.
Aura also extends Chrome's reach into the underlying operating system. On Windows PCs, it appears that future versions of Chrome OS will be more closely integrated with the Windows APIs, making Web apps better able to use desktop operating system resources.
Does this mean Chrome OS will run in a shell environment on Windows PCs, becoming in effect an operating system within Windows? Google declined to comment. But the Aura documentation suggests this.
When Chrome OS was launched in 2010, Google SVP of Chrome and apps Sundar Pichai declared, "Chrome OS is nothing but the Web." Now, if you peer behind the browser pane, it's clear that Chrome OS is looking beyond the Web. It's not a complete repudiation of Google's bet on the appeal of a thin-client system that keeps user data in the cloud. But it is a concession to the realities of a market that's more comfortable with the familiar desktop metaphor.
Aura should help make Chrome OS more appealing to mainstream users. However, Google needs to do more. Google, if you're listening, here's what Chrome OS still needs:
-- Better hardware. The current crop of Chromebooks is underpowered and not particularly innovative. Look at what Apple has done with the MacBook Air and at what some of the makers of ultrabooks have accomplished. Now make something better, and offer both high- and low-end models. You'll never attract power users with underpowered, under-equipped devices.
-- Web-based IDE. Buy Cloud 9 or hurry up and roll out "Brightly", your long-rumored Web-based IDE. If you want developers to create Web apps, give them tools that allow them to do so using Chrome.
-- Support local storage. Stop with the "nothing but the Web" nonsense. Pichai once said, "I don't think we need files anymore." And somehow, no one else at Google mustered a coherent rebuttal. The notion is absurd. Files represent ownership. They offer a defense against lock-in. You yourself make a big deal about this with your Data Liberation Front. Files are freedom. Without them, one's data exists only at the pleasure of one's service provider. And that's no way to live. Chrome OS will be able to challenge Linux, OS X, or Windows when it offers broad support for storing data locally and mirroring local files in the cloud.
-- Offline apps. Your notion that cloud computing can completely replace local computing is as absurd as your nothing-but-the-Web conceit. Google Apps needs to run offline and to be at least as responsive as Microsoft Word in the absence of a network connection. Really, any Web app should run offline. We have the technology, even if HTML5 local storage might not be mature yet. Of course, you don't want people to operate offline because you cannot deliver ads or collect data when there's no network connection. But you would do better to provide services that people want to use rather than trying to steer customers toward services that fit your business model.