Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My impressions on Chrome OS

I have been curious to check Chrome OS since I first heard of it. It is mobile open source, after all, so it fits well with my blog. But my curiosity really stems from the confusion in my brain about the Google OS strategy between Android and Chrome OS.

Android is a full OS for a mobile device. It is getting better by the day (bringing supercool apps with it: I drove with the new Google Maps Navigation tool to work yesterday and it is WOW). Android is going upstream. I am betting we will see a in-car navigation device on it very soon. We are seeing eBook readers already and netbooks. If you look at it, you would assume Google strategy is to kill Microsoft from the bottom: kill Windows Mobile and move up, slowly killing Windows. There are already way more mobile devices than desktops...

Chrome OS is an OS in a browser. A purest form of business model for Google, since it forces everything on the cloud, where they make money. I followed the easy instructions and I quickly built an image on a USB key. I booted my laptop and boom, in 10 seconds I had the OS up and running.

Excluding Wi-fi and audio not working, everything else pretty much worked as expected. Not very fast, I have to say. But I was not looking for that. I was looking for a use case.

I could not find it...

If the OS selling point is that it boots fast, then who cares? My laptop (Mac) boots a little slower but I close the lid and it goes on standby. I open it and it is there. Not in 10 seconds, in 2. Unless the OS crashes or I have to reboot for an upgrade (no more than once a week), I could not care less about the booting time.

Then what? Maybe an uncluttered UI. Yes, that is nice. But the compromise is big. The little windows (e.g. the calculator) open up in the bottom right and they stay there iconized. That is a menu bar, like in every other OS. However it is confusing, because they are trying to stretch a browser to resemble a desktop environment. Chrome OS is something you need to get used to, unlike Android that is immediate.

Aside from some very specialized devices, where you might need just a browser (kiosks?) I do not get it. Maybe I am dense, but I see two paradigm that fits usability patterns:
  1. A full desktop interface, with multiple windows and spaces. A menu bar. Multiple apps running at the same time in different areas of the screen (not tabs). Mouse and maybe touchscreen as a nice to have for presentations. Keyboard. The full enchilada. Power to the user. Not a cramped UI.
  2. A home screen with icons to launch single apps. You click one, it opens, you do something, you close it (or leave it open if it really makes sense). One-click to the task you have in mind.
The desktop interface can scale down to netbooks and maybe tablets. But it is an overkill for mobile devices with small screens, or even eBook readers. Actually, it is probably an overkill for anything that is not meant to be heavily multi-purpose.

The home screen interface can scale up, maybe even to desktops. I do not see a reason for Android not to make it up there. Maybe it won't happen because we are all so used to what we have, but there is a chance. At the end of the day, it is a Linux distro and it is proving useful, with lots of apps. I see a future where it could eat in the Windows and Mac OS plate.

However, I can't see it with Chrome OS. On a desktop, it is too limiting. On a mobile device, it is not usable (it is clearly designed for interaction with a mouse). Unless there is a category in the middle where it will fit, I do not get it.

And products in search of a problem are not usually best-sellers. You need a problem to solve first. I understand why a world in the cloud helps Google business, but they are better off going the Android route. There, they solved a problem - and a broken business model.