Part of the agreement you have to accept when applying for a CR-48 is that you will use the machine as your primary computer for awhile and send as much input back to Google as you can through the built-in feedback system. I complied with the agreement and spent a week using, or perhaps more accurately attempting to use, the CR-48 as my main computer. The experience was more or less what I expected, and certainly made for an interesting experiment.
I should start off by saying that I am clearly not the intended audience for Chrome OS, and I would go so far as to say neither are the vast majority of 2600 readers. Chrome OS in it’s current form is simply not suitable for anyone who does more than browse the Internet and use social networking sites. But as it just so happens, those people are actually in the majority, so I don’t know that the situation is a problem for Google.
I found that by enabling the aforementioned Developer Mode and getting access to the Linux terminal I was able to improve upon the situation immensely. From Linux I was able to do things like mount USB storage devices and run X over SSH, which let me display the output of graphical Linux applications in Chrome OS’s WM. Being able to Alt+Tab into Firefox had a fun irony to it, but more importantly it let me run some graphical applications which simply don’t have a Chrome OS parallel yet. Of course, this is cheating, and the average user wouldn’t be in Developer Mode, and certainly won’t know enough about the Linux command line environment to mount his USB flash drive.
Which brings us to Chrome OS “Apps”; surely, missing functionality in the core OS could be supplemented with third-party applications? As it turns out, no.
As Chrome OS is built on the principle that most users simply want to access web-based services, it’s idea of applications are, accordingly, things that you are able to do from within the browser itself. But if the service is held entirely on the Internet, what exactly needs to be installed on the local Chrome OS machine? Well, just what you would think, actually. A bookmark.
That’s right, as of this writing, the majority of Chrome OS “Apps” are simply bookmarks. Google is so hell-bent on proving that the Internet is an applications platform that they have gone so far as to trick the user into thinking they are installing an application when they are really just making a bookmark to an existing website. It’s really rather ridiculous, the Web Store (where Chrome OS users go to download and purchase Chrome OS Apps) is scarcely more than a repository of bookmarks that the user can search through and rate. Oh, and purchase too; you can literally sell bookmarks on the Chrome OS Web Store.
The closest you can get to real applications on Chrome OS are Chrome Extensions, which are simply add-ons to the Chrome browser itself. These vary from the handy to the inane, but on the whole they are all very simplistic. There is only so much a browser add-on can do, after all. These are also the same Extensions you can get on the desktop version of Chrome, which means none of them are really making use of Chrome OS’s APIs or unique features.
Even though I was faced with what seemed like intolerable limitations, I carried on with my duty to run Chrome OS and give Google feedback. I found that after a few days I really did begin to adapt to a browser-only computer. I even started to use more of Google’s services, like Google Talk, since they were so tightly integrated into Chrome OS itself; surely part of Google’s larger plan with Chrome OS. Everything was going relatively well, until the night the Internet went out.
I was working on the CR-48, and when I clicked on the GMail App I found it was unable to load. I switched over to a tab that had Google open and tried a search, and sure enough that failed as well. As a Comcast Internet customer, I am well accustomed to the Internet going out at random, and a quick glance over at the router showed that this was once again the case. My first instinct was to simply work on something that didn’t need the Internet, such as writing this article. So I clicked on the Google Docs App so I could start writing…and then it hit me.
A wave of 21st century Lovecraftian horror grew over me as I realized that, without the Internet, the device in front of me was completely useless. Write a document? Not without Google Docs. Play music? Can’t store anything on the local machine. Play a game? Surely you jest. Write software? Hell, I had a hard enough time with that when the Internet was still working.
It was a sobering wakeup call that the device sitting in front of me was most definitely not a computer in the sense I have become accustomed to. It also reminded me that, while the Internet is certainly a very large part of what people do on their computers, it is assuredly not the only thing they do. Not being able to write a document because the Internet is out is already absurd, but without the Internet I couldn’t even get access to any of my files, which is absolutely unacceptable.