Chrome OS: Google’s Most Underrated Project That You’ve Already Been Testing And Just Didn’t Know It

There are hundreds of devices to choose from when you’re considering a new desktop computer, laptop or mobile device. We’re overwhelmed by all of the choices we have, but choice is good. When it comes to computing, as far as operating systems, there are three huge players: Microsoft, Apple and Google. Yes, Google.

A curious thing happened during Chrome’s rise to being the most-used browser – an operating system was born. Perhaps that was the plan all along, one can never truly know with Google. What I do know is that when you’re on the go, especially with a laptop, the primary piece of software that everyone uses is the web browser, so why not build an operating system on top of it?

That’s exactly what Chrome OS is and it’s starting to make its way to consumers. Google has announced strong partnerships with hardware manufacturers like Samsung and Acer to build affordable (not cheap) laptops built for a world that accesses information in the cloud. When I say the cloud, I mean, email, files, web surfing, chatting and social networking. These things are all done very well through the browser and not through an installed desktop application.

You’d be hard-pressed to find something that you can’t do through the browser, and need actual installed software for. For me, it was using Spotify to listen to music, but that’s being sorted out as we speak. I sat down with the Chrome OS team to discuss its evolution and current iteration and came away quite impressed.

The OS

Screenshot 2012-12-03 at 12.18.45 PMChrome OS is an open-source operating system built on many of the things that you might be using already with the Chrome browser. Everything is quite familiar, with the full integration of all of Google’s core products: Drive, Chrome, Gmail, Play, Plus, and of course Search. If you use Google products, then using Chrome OS will be an extremely natural experience for you.

Everything runs pretty quickly on the device that I’m using right now, the latest Samsung Chromebook. I find that I’m not looking to drag and drop things onto a desktop, because it gets messy. Instead, everything is held in an internal filesystem that can be dragged and dropped anywhere, including Google Drive. This makes for moving files between systems super simple. Since all of the things you would probably want to do are available via Chrome extensions, you’ll be able to evolve your environment as new things become available.

Speaking of super simple, I was able to open this laptop, log in with my Google credentials, and start using it as if it were my tablet or phone within three minutes. Since everything is synced, it doesn’t matter what device you’re using in a Google world. It just works. And more importantly, it’s easy to iterate on, on the fly.

Caesar Sengupta, Product Management Director on Chrome OS at Google, told me:

The story for Chrome OS starts way back. It starts with the browser, Chrome. Google’s a web company: We push the boundaries of the web; everything we do is largely on the web. One of the things we realized early on was the web wasn’t keeping up with the potential of what the web could be. We were building apps like Gmail and Google News – rich and vibrant. Browsers weren’t able to handle it. And the web is a platform that allows you to deploy globally without installation. You could pick up any machine login and work. In order to build fun and sexy stuff, you have to build on it.

The Hardware

photo 4The hardware itself, like I mentioned, the Samsung Chromebook, looks strikingly similar to the MacBook Air. Yes, start your complaining about copycatting now, that’s not the point. It’s light, runs quickly, and does exactly what you’d want to do. Especially if you rely on a web browser a lot.

Here are full details about what’s inside:

  • 11.6’’ (1366×768) display
  • 0.7 inches thin – 2.42 lbs / 1.1 kg
  • Over 6.5 hours of battery 1
  • Samsung Exynos 5 Dual Processor
  • 100 GB Google Drive Cloud Storage2 with 16GB Solid State Drive
  • Built-in dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • VGA Camera
  • 1x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0
  • HDMI Port
  • Bluetooth 3.0™ Compatible

It’s pretty impressive, but who cares about all of that. It just works, and it works quite well.

Regarding its strategy in rolling out Chromebook hardware over the past year, Group Product Manager Ryan Tabone told me:

The point of the prototype was to develop the software. Samsung and Acer shipped devices last year – same form factor but based on Atom. We basically just offered these devices online. The people who were ready for it, came to it. We realized at Google this journey is going to take us some time. The world is moving into these ecosystems. For a web company to have hardware, it was an area we needed to have a strong offering in.

The Price

Price is one of those things that trips everyone up. We know what an iPhone costs, kind of. We know what an iPad and a Surface costs. Prices are expensive to some and cheap to others. This particular Samsung Chromebook is $249. You can call it cheap, or you can call it inexpensive. I’ll go with the latter.

The nice part about machines at that pricepoint is that you can get them into the hands of kids. In fact, Google is seeing pretty good traction in schools that are picking up Chromebooks for entire classrooms. They’re easy to administer from a high level and low-priced enough if they were to get broken, stolen or lost.

Also, I tend to break things or drop them in toilets. Don’t ask. In that case, running out and picking up another laptop that I can be up and running on in a matter of minutes in my exact previous state is pretty priceless. So let’s call this thing inexpensive, shall we?

Sengupta had this to say on the price:

There was a core group of people who were using these as additional computers, for other people in the family, like my wife. She does a lot but does it all online.

Tabone had a good point:

When have you ever thought of giving someone a computer as a gift?


The Point

photo 5Computing doesn’t have to be difficult, it should be fun and efficient at the same time. You can do both, and Google does a wonderful job of facilitating that with its current suite of products and services. Even if you’re not an Android phone user, which I’m not, you can still find value in Chrome OS.

From a usability, price, and compatibility perspective, it’s difficult to find another operating system on hardware that runs this well, and without so little effort to actually make it work. Basically, you won’t be getting tons of calls from mom and dad on how to use it. That’s good for us, but for them too. It’s empowering. You should use technology, it shouldn’t use you. And the best technology finds itself getting completely out of the way.

If you use the Chrome browser, you’ve already been testing it, you just didn’t know it. Chrome OS won’t change the way that you compute, it’ll just make it easier.