ChromeOS vs Linux: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Tuesday Sep 16th 2014 by Matt Hartley
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In the battle between ChromeOS and Linux, both desktop environments have strengths and weaknesses.

Anyone who believes Google isn't "making a play" for desktop users isn't paying attention. In recent years, I've seen ChromeOS making quite a splash on the Google Chromebook. Exploding with popularity on sites such as Amazon.com, it looks as if ChromeOS could be unstoppable.

In this article, I'm going to look at ChromeOS as a concept to market, how it's affecting Linux adoption and whether or not it's a good/bad thing for the Linux community as a whole. Plus, I'll talk about the biggest issue of all and how no one is doing anything about it.

ChromeOS isn't really Linux

When folks ask me if ChromeOS is a Linux distribution, I usually reply that ChromeOS is to Linux what OS X is to BSD. In other words, I consider ChromeOS to be a forked operating system that uses the Linux kernel under the hood. Much of the operating system is made up of Google's own proprietary blend of code and software.

So while the ChromeOS is using the Linux kernel under its hood, it's still very different from what we might find with today's modern Linux distributions.

Where ChromeOS's difference becomes most apparent, however, is in the apps it offers the end user: Web applications. With everything being launched from a browser window, Linux users might find using ChromeOS to be a bit vanilla. But for non-Linux users, the experience is not all that different than what they may have used on their old PCs.

For example: Anyone who is living a Google-centric lifestyle on Windows will feel right at home on ChromeOS. Odds are this individual is already relying on the Chrome browser, Google Drive and Gmail. By extension, moving over to ChromeOS feels fairly natural for these folks, as they're simply using the browser they're already used to.

Linux enthusiasts, however, tend to feel constrained almost immediately. Software choices feel limited and boxed in, plus games and VoIP are totally out of the question. Sorry, but GooglePlus Hangouts isn't a replacement for VoIP software. Not even by a long shot.

ChromeOS or Linux on the desktop

Anyone making the claim that ChromeOS hurts Linux adoption on the desktop needs to come up for air and meet non-technical users sometime.

Yes, desktop Linux is absolutely fine for most casual computer users. However it helps to have someone to install the OS and offer "maintenance" services like we see in the Windows and OS X camps. Sadly Linux lacks this here in the States, which is where I see ChromeOS coming into play.

I've found the Linux desktop is best suited for environments where on-site tech support can manage things on the down-low. Examples include: Homes where advanced users can drop by and handle updates, governments and schools with IT departments. These are environments where Linux on the desktop is set up to be used by users of any skill level or background.

By contrast, ChromeOS is built to be completely maintenance free, thus not requiring any third part assistance short of turning it on and allowing updates to do the magic behind the scenes. This is partly made possible due to the ChromeOS being designed for specific hardware builds, in a similar spirit to how Apple develops their own computers. Because Google has a pulse on the hardware ChromeOS is bundled with, it allows for a generally error free experience. And for some individuals, this is fantastic!

Comically, the folks who exclaim that there's a problem here are not even remotely the target market for ChromeOS. In short, these are passionate Linux enthusiasts looking for something to gripe about. My advice? Stop inventing problems where none exist.

The point is: the market share for ChromeOS and Linux on the desktop are not even remotely the same. This could change in the future, but at this time, these two groups are largely separate.

ChromeOS use is growing

No matter what your view of ChromeOS happens to be, the fact remains that its adoption is growing. New computers built for ChromeOS are being released all the time. One of the most recent ChromeOS computer releases is from Dell. Appropriately named the Dell Chromebox, this desktop ChromeOS appliance is yet another shot at traditional computing. It has zero software DVDs, no anti-malware software, and offfers completely seamless updates behind the scenes. For casual users, Chromeboxes and Chromebooks are becoming a viable option for those who do most of their work from within a web browser.

Despite this growth, ChromeOS appliances face one huge downside – storage. Bound by limited hard drive size and a heavy reliance on cloud storage, ChromeOS isn't going to cut it for anyone who uses their computers outside of basic web browser functionality.

ChromeOS and Linux crossing streams

Previously, I mentioned that ChromeOS and Linux on the desktop are in two completely separate markets. The reason why this is the case stems from the fact that the Linux community has done a horrid job at promoting Linux on the desktop offline.

Yes, there are occasional events where casual folks might discover this "Linux thing" for the first time. But there isn't a single entity to then follow up with these folks, making sure they’re getting their questions answered and that they're getting the most out of Linux.

In reality, the likely offline discovery breakdown goes something like this:

  • Casual user finds out Linux from their local Linux event.
  • They bring the DVD/USB device home and attempt to install the OS.
  • While some folks very well may have success with the install process, I've been contacted by a number of folks with the opposite experience.
  • Frustrated, these folks are then expected to "search" online forums for help. Difficult to do on a primary computer experiencing network or video issues.
  • Completely fed up, some of the above frustrated bring their computers back into a Windows shop for "repair." In addition to Windows being re-installed, they also receive an earful about how "Linux isn't for them" and should be avoided.

Some of you might charge that the above example is exaggerated. I would respond with this: It's happened to people I know personally and it happens often. Wake up Linux community, our adoption model is broken and tired.

Great platforms, horrible marketing and closing thoughts

If there is one thing that I feel ChromeOS and Linux on the desktop have in common...besides the Linux kernel, it's that they both happen to be great products with rotten marketing. The advantage however, goes to Google with this one, due to their ability to spend big money online and reserve shelf space at big box stores.

Google believes that because they have the "online advantage" that offline efforts aren't really that important. This is incredibly short-sighted and reflects one of Google's biggest missteps. The belief that if you're not exposed to their online efforts, you're not worth bothering with, is only countered by local shelf-space at select big box stores.

My suggestion is this – offer Linux on the desktop to the ChromeOS market through offline efforts. This means Linux User Groups need to start raising funds to be present at county fairs, mall kiosks during the holiday season and teaching free classes at community centers. This will immediately put Linux on the desktop in front of the same audience that might otherwise end up with a ChromeOS powered appliance.

If local offline efforts like this don't happen, not to worry. Linux on the desktop will continue to grow as will the ChromeOS market. Sadly though, it will absolutely keep the two markets separate as they are now.

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