Chrome OS: Please Don't Open the Hood

In theory, Chrome OS is open source, yet in practice it appears closer to proprietary software.
Posted December 14, 2010
By

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield


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By now, you may have seen the latest promo for the upcoming Chrome notebook. Advocating the advantages of the cloud-based Chrome OS, the video is mildly amusing and largely irrelevant -- a case at least as strong could be made for preferring locally-installed applications, and I suspect that what people really want to see are close-ups of Chrome OS.

However, those close-ups can be harder to see than you might expect. Since Google is not releasing any official downloads, you need to either compile your own code, or to sort through the unofficial releases until you find one that is not only reasonably current, but whose source also seems trustworthy. After struggling to determine if you have the latest version and learning how to convert it for a virtualization tool like VirtualBox, you might conclude that the easiest way to satisfy your curiosity about Chrome OS is to apply for the Chrome Netbook Pilot Program in the hopes of receiving a test machine.

Even when you finally manage to install Chrome OS, you still won't see much. Remember Red Hat founder Bob Young and his tag line, "Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?" He was talking about Windows, but the line seems almost as appropriate for Chrome OS.

To be fair, the hood on Chrome OS is not actually welded shut. After all, unlike Window's, the source code of Chrome OS is freely available. But if you happen to believe that the same openness that applies to the source code should also be part of user control on the desktop, then you say that the hood in Chrome OS has a tricky catch that will discourage most users from trying to open it.

On the Surface, Trying to Get into the Hood

Another reason why you might have trouble exploring Chrome OS in any depth is that, on the surface, there isn't much to see. From the first, much of the interface is the Chrome browser -- and if you've seen that on your local desktop, there is not much more to see in the whole of Chrome OS.

If you have seen the browser, you have pretty much seen the operating system. The OS adds a panel with buttons for the time, battery charge, and Internet connection, as well as a menu that includes some configuration options for a netbook touchpad. There's not much else in the interface, aside from tabs in the browser that serve as the menu and a theme selector (each of which, of course, you must download to use).

This interface, frankly, is surprising. Not that Google has hidden its intent to build a cloud-based OS, but, until you try Chrome OS, you may not fully realize how much of a departure from the traditional local computer it actually is.

Many of the hands-on features that even the least technically-minded users of free desktops soon take for granted -- all the controls for configuration, customization, administration and software installation -- are simply not visible. The departure from tradition is far more radical than in a distribution like Jolicloud, which also claims to be Internet-focused, but, more accurately can be said merely to give it as much attention as the local system.

The examples of the change in perspective in Chrome OS are numerous. When you are spending your time in browser windows, themes have less effect than they do on the desktop. Other functions, such as updates, are handled automatically, which is why Google can promote Chrome OS as freeing users from nagging reminders of updates. Others, such as a command line, at first appear to be missing altogether.

Things seem a little more normal when you discover that many apparently missing functions are available as keyboard commands. The fact that pressing the F8 key gives you a handy crib sheet is especially useful to know.

However, since most desktop users remain fixated on the mouse, I suspect that most users will never find these tools, and instead use Chrome OS at a basic level because nothing obviously suggests that more is possible.

Anyway, if they do discover the keyboard commands, they may conclude that the shortcuts no longer function if they happen to press the right hand command keys instead of the left hand ones

Even Ctrl+Alt+T, which opens a command terminal, is less useful than it would be in a desktop distro. True, using a command line, you can ready the crontab jobs that keep the system updated, or determine from the names of repositories (if you didn't already know) that Chrome OS is based on Ubuntu.

On the whole, though, Chrome OS is such a stripped down and customized operating system that you can't assume that any of the commands that are normally in a distribution are available until you try them. Installed, Chrome OS occupies only 20% of the space that Ubuntu Maverick occupies, and while that may partially account for its ability to boot in under seven seconds, it also means that a lot is missing.


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Tags: open source, Chrome OS, Linux downloads, Chrome browser, Notebook


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