What Chrome OS Needs to Expand Adoption

Tuesday Jan 28th 2014 by Matt Hartley

Driven the low cost Chromebooks, the Chrome OS has major potential to expand market share – if it can improve functionality.

Back in 2012, I did a comparison between Chrome OS and Ubuntu. I examined the areas where each operating system differed and I also touched on a few of their similarities. In this piece, I'll take it a step further and examine how Chrome OS is close to filling the OS gap, yet might need some improvements in key areas before the masses begin dumping Windows to migrate to it.

Chromebooks are hot sellers

At the current price, Chromebooks have what it takes to be popular – sub-$300 is pretty compelling to those of us on a budget. Yet even with the demand we've seen with Chromebooks on Amazon and other vendors, it's still limited to a few models from which to choose from. For the lower cost machines, you're basically looking at only two brands – Acer and Samsung. On the plus side, other big names are building Chromebooks of their own, so this may become less of an issue down the road.

Based on the sales trends, Google might hope that the Chromebook can one day unseat Windows and OS X in the marketplace, at least with casual computer users. I beg to differ, however. While it's true that most people live within their web browsers these days, the idea that a computer built entirely around the Chrome browser is a stretch.

Functionality not extensions

The list of applications we use on our computers is extensive. While some of these applications can be substituted with extensions, not all can be. For example, you'd be hard pressed to find suitable alternatives for Skype, Microsoft Office, local printing, Dropbox and Firefox.

Take Skype for example. At this time, if you're looking to use Skype on your Chromebook you are out of luck. Instead, you'll need to use your web browser, Chrome, if you wish to have a video chat with friends. Even worse, you must convince people to use Google Hangouts vs Skype, which isn't as easy as it might sound. Even though there are a multitude of instant messaging extensions available for Chrome that work with various chat protocols, none of them offer video chat options with Skype.

Next up is Microsoft Office, which is arguably difficult to replace with Google Drive. Don't get me wrong, Google Drive is handy, but it's not nearly as full featured as a local office suite. Using Google's spreadsheet, for example, lacks finesse when exporting some spreadsheets into an Excel file format. Overall, I feel that local office suites offer a level of control not found within Google Drive.

Then there's the issue of printing. If you have a Google friendly printer that supports Cloud Printing, then this won't really be an issue for you. If you're like me and are still using an older all-in-one printer, then you're going to be very disappointed. You have to have your legacy printer connected to an active PC or Mac to print from a Chromebook. If you don't invest in a newer Cloud supported printer, you'll need a separate PC (left on) to print to. This issue alone leaves me feeling uneasy about relying on Chrome OS for casual users.

And finally, from the above application list, there's Dropbox. Even though there are extensions that provide limited Dropbox uploading functionality for Chrome OS, there isn't an option for proper two-way syncing between the Web and your Chromebook. Instead, the best that Chrome OS extensions have to offer is one-way syncing.

What Chrome OS needs

What Chrome OS needs to make the Chromebook even more successful is relatively simple. First, more choices outside of lower budget notebook models. Good mid-range notebooks running Chrome OS would be a welcome change from the hot and cold options with existing Chromebooks. Choosing between a $250 Chromebook or a $1500 Chromebook Pixel leaves a lot of opportunity in-between.

The second thing that must be addressed is support for Linux compatible printers. Considering that Chrome OS has Linux roots, I wouldn't think that unleashing the already vast list of compatible legacy printers would be that much to ask. Not everyone has a second PC or a Cloud friendly printer on hand, after all.

And lastly, there needs to be some method to address the fact that not everyone wants to use Google products exclusively. Yes, I realize if one buys a Chromebook this is exactly the mindset they're signing on for. However, I still think there must be a means of allowing for some common ground here. For example, finding a way to get Dropbox and Skype for Linux working would do wonders for making the Chromebook even more attractive to anyone on the fence about buying one.

Unfortunately, this probably isn't going to happen. Google has its own VoIP solution and they have no reason to pursue getting anything without the Google brand to work on these notebooks. After all, it's a Google operating system, not a Linux distribution. Google apparently doesn’t see any value in changing what is already working well for them at this point. Remember, Google does what Google thinks is best – often to the dismay of its users.

Chrome OS in the future

At the time of this article's posting, Google is holding a contest of sorts for anyone who can successfully hack the Chrome OS. The idea is that Google is very serious about Chromebooks being among the most secure portable computing appliances around.

I find this ironic, considering the various malmare challenges Google has had recently with their extensions already. Nevertheless, Google is serious about making Chromebooks a useful, secure experience for their target user base.

What'll be interesting to see is if Google can push past this "secondary" computer path Chromebooks are on. Can Google actually get Chromebooks to a point where we can start using them as fully functional computers instead of "portable word processors"? At this point, there's still a lot of opportunity for Google to surprise us.

My best guess for the future of Chromebooks is as follows. As time goes on, the hardware will continue to gain processing power, even as the price lowers. Additionally, as more printers are traded in for newer models, the issue of Google printing will become less of a hassle than it is now for those of us with legacy printers. And finally, there's Google Hangouts and Google Plus to consider. I enjoy using Google Plus and Hangouts as much as anyone. Sadly though, no matter how much Google pushes, it's the tech-crowd using these tools and not the casual masses.

This means communication tools between Chrome OS users and users of other platforms will remain primarily tied to text-based solutions, and so will lack a unified video chat due to end-user habits. In the future – the distant future – perhaps this won't matter anymore. But that future hasn't arrived just yet and that leaves the Chromebook as a secondary computer at best.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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