How Much PC Do You Need?
If you work in a field that requires powerful specialized software such as CAD or Adobe's Creative Suite, Chrome OS isn't for you--at least not for work. But a relatively small percentage of the work force actually requires such tools. Most of us spend our work day in word processors, spreadsheets, presentation builders, e-mail clients, and browsers. Meanwhile, home users typically use their PCs for things like e-mail, shopping, and social networking, and typing up documents. For these kinds of activities, the Web offers a wealth of good options.
Even photo editing, one of the most common computing tasks, has become pretty darned good online. Photoshop.com offers all the editing tools a typical user is likely to need, along with 2GB of free storage space to keep pictures in. JayCut offers a good Web-based video editor with no upload limit, and lets you automatically share your creations on social sites like Facebook, export them to your media player, or burn them to DVD. And the list of free online music services is so long that it hardly bears rehashing. So, apart from a dogmatic attachment to desktop applications, there are few good reasons that a simple, browser-based OS like Chrome couldn't meet most users' needs most of the time.
If you're willing to use the Web as your computing platform, there's little reason to bother running a powerful desktop operating system. In fact, it may actually be slowing you down. A big, powerful, do-everything OS takes a long time to boot and requires a significant chunk of processing power, RAM, and storage just to run its own processes. An "underwhelming" OS like Chrome would eliminate most of that overhead and put more of your computer's resources into actually doing the things you want to do.
Forget the Platform, Just Get Things Done
Most of us have grown accustomed to thinking about, managing, and tweaking our operating systems. Whether we run Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, the OS is a persistent influence on the way we work. It dictates which apps we can run on our machines, and how we get to those apps. But if we take the OS out of the equation and just go straight to the browser, we're all pretty much living and working in the same environment: the Web. Suddenly, it no longer matters much what kind of computer we're using.
In truth, I've been working this way for years. Because I switch daily between Windows, Mac, and Linux, I don't get too attached to any given desktop app. I prefer to work on the Web, where I'm sure the stuff I use most will work with any computer that happens to be sitting in front of me. I move smoothly from my iMac to my Ubuntu netbook to my Windows workstation, accessing my favorite Web apps from all of them. And I've quickly found that my Android phone stands in nicely for any of these when I don't have a computer handy.
Chrome OS fits easily into this way of working, because it just turns on and works. Instead of waiting for the computer to boot and then launching the browser, you'll just hit the power button, log in, and go. I attended the live demo at the Googleplex, and I've now spent a couple of days messing around with a Chromium open-source build in a virtual machine, and it appears to genuinely live up to this promise. There's almost no OS there at all. Apart from the battery monitor, there's little in the interface to even indicate the presence of a computer outside the browser. I know it ain't for everyone, but to me, this is a step in the right direction.
It Ain't About the OS, and It Ain't About Google
For Chrome OS, "unimpressive" is practically a compliment. If you're not impressed with the operating system, that means it's doing what it's supposed to be doing, which is getting out of your way so you can get on with your life.
Ultimately, anyone could've made an operating system like this. And because Chromium is open source, pretty much anyone can. I'd love to see the open source community dive into this code and produce other flavors of browser-centric operating systems. It seems to me that there's very little stopping anyone from producing a Mozilla-based variant of Chromium for Firefox fans.
Even Microsoft and Apple could take a stab at this if they wanted to, as I have little doubt that streamlined Internet Explorer and Safari systems would be good for those respective user bases. While the big OS makers will likely continue to serve the majority of users with their full-blown operating systems for years and years to come, this minimal-OS model could very well prove to be a whole new market for them, too, providing useful alternatives to the sluggish, bloated platforms that have dominated the computing world for far too long.
I've just about had it with operating systems that nag me with notification bubbles and maintenance tasks. I have actual work to do that doesn't involve worrying about whether the software that runs my computer is stable, up-to-date, backed up, or secure. Sure, I like tinkering with my computer. If I didn't, I wouldn't have this job in the first place. But I want to tinker and explore on my own time, not when my OS demands it of me.
Robert Strohmeyer is a senior editor at PC World. He tweets as @rstrohmeyer.