I have always been skeptical of cloud computing. In the rush towards the latest new thing, developers are downplaying problems about privacy and availability. Moreover, the centralization of cloud computing is no more convenient than open source applications that can be installed anywhere you want.
In theory, I can appreciate the engineering challenges that both represent, especially for usability, and even make allowances because neither is in final form. Yet, as a user, I feel that both Chrome and Jolicloud have too much of the centralization that I moved to open source to escape. In fact, both seem a step backwards in usability, evoking uncomfortable reminders of the awkwardness of the bulletin boards of the early 1990s.
Currently in beta release, Jolicloud is available as an .ISO or flash drive image. Also in beta, Chrome is less generally accessible, and is best viewed either by compiling from source, or by downloading a VMWare Player image or a VirtualBox appliance. Both run with few problems and are surprisingly stable, considering their stage of development.
Compared to Jolicloud, Chrome is in a less developed state. In fact, when you log in, one of the first things you are likely to notice is a statement across the top: "UI [User Interface] under development. Designs are subject to change," with a link to the User Experience section of the Chromium Project. However, after looking at the theoretical concepts behind the design, I would be surprised to see any radical change of direction in the design.
At any rate, to date the main aim of Chrome appears to be the replacement of the desktop with the browser -- a reversal of the traditional relationship in which, because the browser came later, it remains only partially integrated into the desktop.
When you log into Chrome, you are presented with a tabbed browser. On the first tab is a set of icons for online applications. Google's own applications, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Docs, and PicasaWeb feature prominently, although other company's applications are also included. At this stage, the collection is a mishmash of productivity and social networking tools, with a few obvious omissions -- notably, a lack of music sites and faded but still popular sites like MySpace.
Clicking an icon on the first tab opens the selected application in another tab. You can also open another window, which stacks on top of the initial one. This arrangement has the advantage of running all tabs at full size, a potential benefit in a netbook, where screen space is limited, but one that feels restricted and clumsy. Multiple windows can be a pain to manage, and, for all the ingenious tricks, no designer has really found a way to do so. But, working with Chrome's tabs, I soon found myself longing to use them.
I particularly missed adjustable windows when I wanted to compare items -- flipping between tabs is nowhere near as convenient as placing two windows side by side. The only way that the reliance on tabs seems justified is if you assume that nobody will do any serious work on netbooks, and that seems a false premise, considering how popular netbooks are with business travelers.
So far, Chrome includes controls to turn Wifi and Ethernet connections on and off, but no other system settings or customization options, to say nothing of desktop utilities of the sort found in GNOME's applets or KDE's widgets. No doubt some of these features will find their way into Chrome before the final release, but, for now, these lacks add to the impression that using Chrome means giving up much of the control that I'm accustomed to having over my computer interface. While Chrome is easy enough to use, it seems to insist on users doing things its way.
This impression is heightened by the omnipresence of Google applications. You can, of course, bookmark Thinkfree, Zoho and use them instead of Google Docs, or Flickr instead of PicasaWeb, but, currently, at least, Chrome steers you towards using Google's applications.
In fact, it was only while using Chrome that I appreciated how integrated an approach to computing it represents. If it succeeds, Chrome will dominate all aspects of users' computing in a way that no other company except Microsoft has ever done. Admittedly, while Google has a mixed reputation in open source, it still has a better reputation than Microsoft, but I suspect that this control of user experience will produce twinges of uneasiness in open source circles. Even if Chrome is released as free software, the control of computing by a single corporation, no matter how enlightened, just doesn't sit well.