Five things Chrome OS isn't

Some people still seem a little confused about what Chrome OS is and isn't, so here's my quick guide to what's really what with this forthcoming operating system.

1. Ready yet

I'm already seeing people proclaiming that Chrome OS is awful. Uh, people: it's not even beta yet. Yes, even now Google Chrome OS works pretty darn well, but what we're seeing now isn't even close to what will eventually be shipping. Announcing that it's already a failure or that it deserves a 'D-' grade is at best ignorant, and at worse deliberate anti-Linux and anti-Google FUDing.

Heck, even I, who has little love for Windows, waited for Vista to be in beta before I started kicking it around. Give it a chance.

2. A Windows desktop replacement

I go into that why Chrome OS is not going to replace Windows in some detail in an earlier post. Chrome OS is meant to eventually overturn the PC-centric desktop model, but no matter how successful Chrome OS ends up being in the short run, many users will still need to run Windows, Mac OS X, Ubuntu, or another full-scale desktop operating system.

3. Able to run Android or other Linux applications on Chrome OS.

All, and I mean all, of Chrome OS's applications are Web applications. You will be able to run Google Docs or even Microsoft's Office Live, but you won't be able to run OpenOffice, never mind Microsoft Office.

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While Google hasn't quite ruled this out completely, if you read Chrome OS's design documents, it's pretty darn clear that unless an application is already in the Linux kernel or is needed to run a Chrome device's peripherals, Google won't let it run on Chrome OS. Remember what I just said about Chrome OS not being a replacement for a full desktop? This design decision is one of the reasons I say that.

Could Chrome OS be made into a complete PC-centric Linux desktop? Sure. But that's not what Google is doing. Chrome OS is an Internet-based operating system; only the bare minimum of applications will actually live on Chrome OS computers.

4. More secure than Windows

Yes and no. Yes, Chrome OS takes radical steps to make sure that it's more secure than any other desktop operating system. On the other hand, it's also stuck with a login/password system and all its inherent problems, such as that login/password on any Chrome device will let any hacker access all your data.

As I read over Google's Chrome OS security documentation, I sometimes feel that Google is building a beautiful bank vault with a cheap combination lock in the front. Before Chrome devices start shipping, Google has to come up with a better answer.

5. Ready to run on your computer.

This is another question with a yes and no answer. Yes, even now you can run Chrome OS on VirtualBox or other virtualization programs. We did that in our review of the Chrome OS alpha release.

You can also compile Google OS from the source code. For those who haven't done that kind of thing before, there's a decent guide on how to compile and build Chrome OS using Ubuntu. I've done both. Either way, it works well.

Although power users will be able to run Chrome OS in virtual machines, and hardcore Linux users can build their own version of Chrome OS from the source code, Google has no plans to market do-it-yourself Chrome OS. Instead, the plan is for numerous vendors to sell users laptop and other computing devices with SSD (solid-state drives) with Chrome OS already installed.

If you're a techie, you can certainly run Chrome OS, but for the vast majority of users, their first hands-on experience of Chrome OS will be on a laptop that comes with it pre-installed sometime in the fall of 2010.

Put it all together and you have a fascinating operating system, which is still at a very early stage of development. Since Chrome OS is built on an Ubuntu foundation and uses the Chrome browser for its desktop interface, it looks and feels more mature than it actually is. I'm enjoying playing with it, and I'm going to be very interested in seeing how it works out in the long run. But one thing Chrome OS certainly isn't yet is ready for any kind of final verdict.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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