A year ago, Google began discussing the idea of offering a full operating system based on its Chrome browser. This month, Google revealed further details of its plans and began shipping a first run of test units so that developers, reporters and analysts could begin to evaluate Google's efforts. I've been testing one of these units over the last week or so, and I found Google's efforts impressive. The question is whether Google has created a new environment that will challenge more traditional PC operating systems such as Mac OS and Windows, or whether Chrome will be the latest challenger that ends up with niche success at best.
Chrome OS isn't a new idea. The idea of network computers that deliver all their functionality from somewhere other than the hard drive has been around for more than a decade. Efforts from Sun and Oracle to jump-start this market failed, but the world is a very different place than it was a decade ago. This is the cloud era, and Google has wholeheartedly embraced it.
The company's operating system foray arrived on a laptop known as the Cr-48, but I'm not going to get into the technical aspects of the hardware. Google has made it clear that this is specifically test equipment and was not designed to ever be sold to consumers. Rather, I'm going to focus on the experience.
Booting Chrome OS takes about 15 seconds, and resuming from sleep takes about a second. Those are pretty impressive times -- though they would be even more impressive if Apple's latest generation of MacBook Airs, running a full-blown computer operating system, didn't perform the same trick. What you get after sign-in is your Chrome experience.
That experience is enhanced greatly if you have Chrome on the computer, set to sync. That gives you all your bookmarks, extensions and apps in one place. Of course, this is Google, so you will need a Google account to make it all work.
So, how well does it work? Overall, performance was acceptable if a little slow. Flash-heavy sites suffered the worst, with Hulu little more than a slideshow until I turned the resolution settings all the way down. On the plus side, the magic of HTML5 means there's a plethora of apps in Google's Chrome store that work well. With apps running the gamut from Google Docs for productivity to enhanced versions of sites like The New York Times and Amazon, Google shows the power of the Web properly unleashed. And the power of standards means that apps like the Times also worked well in Apple's Safari browser and even on my iPad.
It's also clear that Google has spent a lot of time rethinking use models. For example, the Caps lock key has been replaced by a search key (a hidden setting let's you change it back if you wish).
But it's the simplicity of Chrome OS that could make it powerful. Lose your notebook or destroy it somehow? With Chrome OS, those situations won't result in lost data and programs. You just have to log onto a new machine, and all your settings, content and apps will be ready and waiting. This type of zero configuration and management has long been pursued. Google has delivered on an appliance-like computing experience that could have a lot of appeal.
At this point, I don't know whether this effort is going to be a success or a failure. Google has given us a glimpse of something that remains more experimental than finished, and what it and its partners will deliver next year is likely to have evolved quite a bit from what I saw over the past week. But Google is clearly envisioning a future where more and more value for more and more users can be delivered via the Web in a way that makes it all easier to use and manage.
My prediction? Chrome notebooks aren't going to take over the market anytime soon, but this platform is going to push things forward as businesses look to simplify the computing platforms they support. The trend that Chrome OS represents will only accelerate as more HTML5 apps deliver richer experiences over time.
Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.