The Time Has Come For Chrome In The Home

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I’ve spent the last two weeks wandering around London, Paris, and Istanbul (not Constantinople.) As an experiment, I left my trusty MacBook Pro behind and brought only the $199 Chromebook on which I type this. And to my considerable surprise it has served admirably. So admirably, in fact, that I believe ChromeOS is only one or two iterations away from being the right choice for many-if not most–homes.

I was skeptical to begin with: after all, I thought, Chrome is acceptable when you’re online, but I’ll be spending much of my travel time offline, which probably makes it a non-starter, right? — So I devoted most of my Chromebook’s (bizarrely spacious) 320GB hard drive to an install of Ubuntu. Which I then never used even once.

I suppose I would have if some kind of critical work emergency had come up: after all, I’m (mostly) a software developer by trade, and ChromeOS isn’t much of a developer platform. But that didn’t happen. Good thing, too, because Linux-on-the-desktop seems as ugly and frustrating as ever for someone, even a deeply techie someone, who just wants to get things done.

ChromeOS, though, is both very pretty and almost painless. Its biggest problem is that out of the box it naively insists that you’ll be online all the time–even though it can be perfectly serviceable while disconnected. You may not have known that nowadays both GMail and (most) Google Docs can work just fine offlne.

And if you didn’t, well, Google sure isn’t about to proactively tell you. You actually have to make a point of seeking out, installing, and then activating Offline Gmail and Offline Google Docs from the Chrome Web Store. Why ChromeOS doesn’t prompt you with this option as part of the onboarding process is truly beyond me. Similarly, why on Earth are “Gmail’ and “Offline Gmail” two separate apps? Google may be full of incredibly smart people, but they can also be insanely myopic when it comes to end users.

Once those were up and running, though, my Chromebook was a charm to use under almost all circumstances. Offline, I could write documents, check old email, and even play a few free games from the Chrome Web Store, although most Chrome games still seem to require an initial server connection to start up. And online, of course, the world was my oyster.

Did I have access to all the features of, say, Word or Excel? Hell, no. (You still can’t create a Google Docs spreadsheet when offline, either.) Was it an all-guns-blazing gaming experience? Again, no, although Chrome’s rapidly evolving Native Client ought to keep matters improving here. What I could do, though, was email, play a few games, surf the Net, communicate (via GChat or Google Hangouts, which worked excellently), and write documents — which unless I’m much mistaken is pretty much everything that most people use their computers for at home.

ChromeOS still needs better, and simpler, offline support; and I’d like to see more diversity of available hardware; but once those two things are addressed, which shouldn’t take long, I would happily recommend a Chromebook to my parents the next time they upgrade. In fact I’d happily recommend one to anyone who wants a small second laptop for travel, or who doesn’t need to do serious work on their home computer.

Long ago Neal Stephenson, when comparing operating systems to vehicles, described MacOS as a hermetically sealed day-glo VW Beetle; MS Windows as a clunky two-tone station wagon; and Linux as the product of a horde of dreadlocked hippies who spent their time building M1 battle tanks and giving them away for free. Which sounds great at first, but who actually wants to drive a tank?

Well, if I may extend that a little, ChromeOS is like a sleek, shiny Airstream trailer built around that same M1 engine. There are many things it can’t do, and a bunch more at which it’s very clumsy, but within its bailiwick, casual exploring, it’s both very attractive and awfully comfortable.

I don’t think Stephenson’s original analogies quite hold any more, though. Nowadays OS X is more like a Porsche…and Windows is a gas-guzzling pickup truck, or a cube van that makes disturbing noises whenever it corners. Still suitable for work, but not particularly great for either road trips or sub/urban living — and nowadays looking nervously over its metaphorical shoulder at the flotilla of drones and self-driving cars on the horizon.

Image credit: Dan McCullough, Flickr.