Does Chrome OS Have a Future?

Conventional wisdom in the IT industry says that Google's Chrome OS is another of the search giant's failures: a bold experiment that like Buzz, Wave, Knol - among others - seems destined for the dustbin of history. Chrome OS, some will tell you, is dead if only Google would admit it. Certainly, sales of Chromebooks, the premium netbooks running Chrome OS, have not exactly been stellar. Analysts at IDC believe that fewer than 300,000 units have shipped to retailers, while some estimates put sales by Acer and Samsung during 2011 as low as 5,000 apiece.

In May 2011, Jefferies and Co analyst Peter Misek was already writing Chrome OS off. "We are still unsure why Google is continuing with its Chrome OS rather than rolling its cloud efforts into Android." Earlier this year Gartner's Isabelle Durand summarised a report by saying "Chromebooks have not made any significant inroads, and their poor sales in 2011 demonstrate that consumers are not ready for mainstream cloud computing."

But are we writing-off Chrome OS too early? It has always been a work in progress, and a platform that, since its arrival last June, has been quietly evolving. And while there's always a chance that Google might cancel Chrome OS tomorrow, the company is playing a long game. In December 2011, Rajen Sheth, Google's Group Product Manager of Chrome for Business, adapted Wayne Gretzky's famous quote that "a good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be." Chrome OS, Google believes is aiming where the puck will be. It might not fit how IT works right now, but it will fit how Google thinks it will work in the future - and it turns out that that future is getting nearer all the time.

What is Chrome OS?

Chrome OS is Google's second operating system, following up on the success of Android in the mobile arena. Like Windows, Ubuntu or OS X it's designed primarily as a desktop OS, initially running on netbooks but with room to scale up to larger laptops and desktop systems too. However, Chrome OS takes a different approach to the competition. Most desktop operating systems are designed to work with applications installed and executed locally using solid-state storage or a hard drive. Chrome OS, however, was built from the ground-up to access applications and data in the cloud. In fact, Chrome OS doesn't even really support local applications: everything runs on the Web in Google's Chrome browser. In fact, Chrome OS is really little else beyond Chrome and the services it needs to run.

With multiple windows and a more familiar interface, Chrome OS is evolving into a more powerful and flexible operating system.

Now, all operating systems are embracing the cloud to some extent. Most of us now use cloud-based services for work or our personal life, and a significant portion of our time will be spent running Gmail or Hotmail, Facebook and Twitter, Flickr and Picasa. And while we might still use Microsoft Office as the everyday workhorse, we might reach for Google Docs or the Office Web Apps to handle specific tasks as well. In a way, Chrome OS is simply taking things to the next level: if we can do everything we need to do in a browser, then why do we need a sprawling, feature-packed but hard-to-manage OS?

And Chrome OS does have advantages. It boots extremely quickly, usually in under eight seconds, and it's stripped back nature makes it easy to use. It updates itself transparently, and requires very little management or administration. It hooks up directly with Google's own Web services and can sync to Chrome browsers installed on a user's other PCs.

Plus, with everything stored on the cloud, Chromebooks have a degree of disaster recovery built in. Lose or break a Chromebook and you don't lose anything. Switch on a new one, enter your credentials, and your Chromebook is back with all your applications and data ready to go. What's more, security is tight. Chrome OS systems patch themselves with the latest security updates, and have all the sandboxing and security features of the Chrome browser too.

The Series 5 Chromebook was Samsung's first-generation effort. Next-generation models featuring ARM or Core technology could be more compelling.

Google also built extra security features into Chromebooks, the premium netbooks that have, so far, been the sole vehicle for Chrome OS. Chromebooks have larger screens than the netbook norm and longer battery lives to boot, along with a choice of 3G or Wi-Fi only models. What's more, each Chromebook contains a Trusted Platform Module and custom firmware chip that work together to ensure that the Chrome OS code has not been tampered with. Fast boots, simplicity and security have been the key USPs of Chrome OS and Chromebook since the start.

Why is Chrome OS failing?

Unfortunately, while not everyone gets Chrome OS's advantages, nearly everyone is aware of its failings. Support for peripherals is limited, file management facilities are basic, and at launch it was quite difficult to do something as basic as getting documents printed. The reduction of the user-interface to a single, albeit-tabbed Chrome browser window aids simplicity, but it also feels claustrophobic to many users. Worse, it makes it difficult if you want to, say, refer to a website while working on a document in Google docs (though Chrome extensions have offered ways around this).

Timing also hasn't been kind to Google. Chrome OS emerged into a market saturated with cheaper Windows netbooks at a time when netbooks themselves were falling out of favour. What's more, while people are looking for an easy-to-use alternative to the conventional PC, the product they're looking at to do it is shaped like an iPad. Security, ease-of-use and an eight second boot time just haven't been exciting enough to compensate for the lack of a familiar UI and familiar apps.

With ChromeOS, your desktop, your apps and your data is only eight seconds away.

But most importantly Chrome OS and the Chromebook have suffered from two glaring faults. For instance, first-generation Chromebooks are based on Intel's Atom N270 processors. These deliver adequate performance for basic browsing and Web applications, but what if you want to stream video, play a game or edit a photo? Suddenly, that Atom processor slows everything to the crawl, your HD video stream jerks and chokes and your new Chromebook feels as sluggish as any bargain-basement netbook.

Secondly, Chrome OS and the Chromebook have been totally dependent on a live Internet connection. Lose it, and you couldn't read or compose email, work on a document or really do anything. This might not be a problem in a home with a solid Wi-Fi signal or an area with seamless, high-speed 3G connectivity, but across much of the UK you can't take either for granted.

Staging a Comeback?

Is it too late for Chrome OS? Maybe, but maybe not. Samsung unobtrusively showed a next-generation Chromebook and a small form-factor desktop 'Chromebox' at this year's CES, while listings from the US Federal Communications Commission have outed a potential Sony Chromebook. There are even rumours that HTC is considering a Chromebook launch. While we wait to see if new Chrome OS hardware will launch in the UK, it would appear that the concept is far from dead.

Also, while Chromebooks haven't been selling well to consumers or corporates, the product is carving out a niche in other markets. In the US, for example, schools in 41 of the 50 states have adopted Chromebooks, with 19,000 going into one school district in South Carolina alone. In the UK education sector there's considerable interest, with teachers and ICT coordinators seeing the upsides of rapid start-up and easy access to cloud-based apps and data, as much as the downside of being dependent on connectivity. Public institutions in local government - already a growing market for Google Apps - provide another avenue for growth.

With a choice of themes and backgrounds, Chrome OS can now have a personal touch.

And while tech commentators often focus on the negatives - the lack of processing power, the dependence on cloud services and Internet connectivity - we often miss the aspects of Chrome OS that make it interesting to a less expert, less demanding group of home users: whatever its faults, Chrome OS is simple to use and hard to break.

More than this, however, Chrome is always evolving, and there are signs that Google has Chrome OS's major weaknesses in sight. In April Google revealed a new windows manager, codenamed Aura, which replaced the streamlined Browser-only UI with a more Windows-like desktop, complete with resizable windows, a choice of desktop backgrounds, icons, an applications bar and a notifications area. The result is an OS more suited to multi-tasking, where you can have multiple applications or cloud-based services open on the same screen. Psychologically, it also feels less claustrophobic, more easily personalised and more familiar. Using Aura on a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, the OS no longer feels strange and awkward.

The latest developer builds also promise other goodies, including a built-in image-editor with uploads to Picasa, and a new Getting Started page designed to get newcomers used to the Aura interface.

The close integration of ChromeOS with Google Drive could be key to enhancing online and offline use.

That's great, but an even more substantial improvement comes with the launch of Google Drive. In the general context of cloud services Google Drive isn't actually that exciting. It comes across as partly a next-generation Google Docs and partly Google's answer to Dropbox. On the one hand it offers a better way to store and access key files and documents with 5GB of free storage space, plus more if you're willing to cough up. On the other, it's a way of keeping files synchronised between various computers. For Chrome OS, however, Google is clear that Google Drive will be the system's equivalent of a local drive, with the system and applications treating it in much the same way that a conventional PC uses its primary hard disk. Every document you work on, every photo you drag in from an SD memory card, will end up on your Google Drive automatically.

"With Chromebooks, [Google Drive] is even more powerful, because it just starts working naturally" Google's Sundar Pichai told the US magazine Wired, "Your local drive is also Google Drive. This makes it really powerful because you just don't think about it." This could work wonders for Chrome OS. While the current implementation in the developers' build of Chrome OS lacks core functionality, it already sees Google Drive tied into the Chrome OS File Manager, while a new column for 'files available offline' shows that Google is serious about adding full sync functionality. With files stored in the online Google Drive but synced locally and new versions of Google Apps designed to keep working while offline, the old criticism that Chrome OS is useless without a live connection would no longer hold water. Instantly, Chrome OS would be more credible.

The Aura interface has resizable windows, a Web apps launch bar bottom-left and notifications bottom-right.

And meanwhile, Google has been building an ecosystem that suits Chrome as well as it suits Android. The options on the Chrome Web store now encompass a wide range of social, business and productivity services, not to mention some games, and while there are currently technical issues with Chromebooks and Google's Play music and movie services, these are being worked on.

New Hardware

But if Google really wants to give Chrome OS a second chance, it also needs new hardware to showcase it. This doesn't necessarily mean new premium hardware - Chrome-powered Ultrabooks might be desirable, but the prices might be uncomfortably high. Instead, Chrome OS needs hardware that's equipped for users' needs. In February Sundar Pichai promised that second-generation Chromebooks would "improve on the dimensions of speed, security and simplicity", and deals with Intel and the promise of Sandy Bridge architecture in future Chromebooks shows a move in the right direction.

There's also evidence that ARM technology might find a place in Chromebooks, with on-going work in the open source Chromium OS project listing work on hardware codenamed 'Daisy' featuring a dual-core Samsung Exynos 5250 CPU, based on ARM's Cortex A15. With high general computing performance and even better media-processing and graphics capabilities, it would be an excellent fit for a next-gen Chromebook.

Chromeboxes could be another interesting avenue. After all, desktops are still widely used in businesses, schools and public institutions, and the issue of connectivity goes away. Being static, most desktops are connected all the time.

In the end, the success or failure of Chrome OS all comes back to Google's belief that the cloud is where the IT world is headed. Every year, cloud-based applications and services grow more ubiquitous and more sophisticated. The existing ones improve, and those that don't get superseded by new ones. While some applications - video-editing, professional design, games - may always need a degree of local power and fast local storage, that won't be the case with the majority, and while businesses and institutions rely on Office now, how long will it be until the cloud hosts something with most of the key features and an interface that's good enough at a price that's low enough to be compelling? If and when that happens, Chrome OS could look less like a folly, and more like the right OS at the right time. That might not be enough for us to buy a Chromebook now, but writing off Chrome OS could well turn out to be short-sighted.