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Chrome OS Is Still Not an Attack on Windows

Google’s OS was sneak peeked today at the Googleplex. The Wall Street Journal digital called it a “direct challenge to Microsoft Windows.” Really? Let’s clear up some confusion once and for all: Putting the word “OS” after something doesn’t mean it’s a shot at Redmond. (Screenshot below courtesy of Gizmodo.)

Google’s OS was sneak peeked today at the Googleplex. The Wall Street Journal digital called it a “direct challenge to Microsoft Windows.” Really? Let’s clear up some confusion once and for all: Putting the word “OS” after something doesn’t mean it’s a shot at Redmond. (Screenshot below courtesy of Gizmodo.)

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When we first heard about the Chrome OS this summer, I argued that it was destined for relatively simple embedded devices like kiosks. What we saw of Chrome today backs that hunch up.

According to the principals involved in the today’s sneak-peek, the Chrome OS is being optimized for the devices that will pop up in between smartphones and laptops. This is, in fact, the only segment of the computing world that Windows doesn’t serve. Right now, many netbooks run Windows XP, but are phasing out support for that version.

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In a nice piece of cognitive dissonance, the WSJ reports: “Every [Chrome] application will be a Web application. There will be NO desktop apps. Chrome OS is essentially a browser with a few modifications. All data in Chrome OS resides in the cloud.”

That’s meaningful. Google is very good at Web apps, but even they cannot overcome the Web’s restrictions. WebKit, the core rendering engine of Chrome, doesn’t support multi-threaded JavaScript: That means any app you run in Chrome OS can only use one thread of the processor in your computer. Multi-threading is what makes apps like iTunes do so much work so breezily on Windows and Macs.

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Using Web apps also limits what you can do with the hardware. That’s one of the reasons that Chrome will be a “locked down” file system. As WSJ reports: “It’s a read-only root file system… All user data is encrypted and all user data is synced to the cloud. Essentially, Google uses the PC for caching. Again, if you should lose your machine, you buy a new one, fire it up and it syncs with the cloud restoring your previous computing experience.” Great for cheap (or apparently, disposable) computers, but not great if you want to, say, install a program that can burn DVDs.

Neither is Google convincing people to “ditch their hard drives” and store everything in the cloud, as Wired misleadingly argues. Think for a moment about how stupid this would be: As soon as you’re out of range of WiFi or 3G, you lose access to most (if not all) of your stuff. Forget listening to your music on a plane, or watching a movie at your country house that gets crappy 2G reception. In fact, forget watching a movie at all, unless it has YouTube-level quality. Google knows you need local storage–that’s why it’s not letting you install Chrome OS on your home computer. It will be available only as a baked-in OS on low-cost netbooks.

To be clear, I’m not knocking Chrome OS–it’ll be great for netbooks and other in-between devices–but it’s just not meant to compete with Windows or the Mac. If anything, it might compete with an upcoming Apple Tablet or Microsoft’s ailing Windows Phone OS. But Chrome OS is not going to be sitting on your desk at work. One possibility: It will veer in the direction of Linux development, as PC World argues.

Chrome OS is expected to debut in “about a year,” says Google.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.

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