Chrome OS: Please Don't Open the Hood

Tuesday Dec 14th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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In theory, Chrome OS is open source, yet in practice it appears closer to proprietary software.

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.

In theory, I suppose that you might be able to make a few tweaks, like adding Ubuntu repositories, and hand-configuring a few files, in order to make Chrome OS more like a traditional distribution. But the chance of booby-traps among Chrome's custom code seems a distinct possibility.

Anyway, apart from the satisfaction of figuring out how to wrench Chrome away from its intent, why bother? If you are really that determined to have a locally-based operating system, you will probably sniff around Chrome for a while, then move on to a distribution organized more to your liking.

The overall effect is that, while Chrome OS does not weld shut its hood, it might as well have. Everything about it discourages the sort of tinkering that conventional Linux encourages.

The View of the User

A number of things disturb me about Chrome OS. As implemented by Google, cloud computing requires users to trust in the discretion and reliability of the service provider. And while I have nothing particularly damning in my online files, personally I have a hard time extending that trust.

Nor do I believe -- no matter what the latest promo suggests -- that local computers are any more prone to failure than remote ones. Moreover, if the Internet connection goes down, a local machine can still be used productively. By contrast, if the connection goes down on a Chrome netbook, it becomes completely useless.

More abstractly, some of the assumptions that Chrome OS seems to make are frankly discouraging. For example, the suggestion that files are safest in the hands of a cloud provider seems to abandon the idea that users can be educated to do regular backups. If that is so, then it is a depressing conclusion about human nature.

But, most important of all, for me the whole point of free software is that it gives users the chance to take control of their computing if they want to. Probably it should not force them to take control, but it should present the opportunity.

Yet that is not what Chrome OS does. Instead, it encourage users to accept a generic interface, and to use it more or less as installed. Of course, you can argue that having automatic updates is a convenience, and I am sure that many users are glad of it.

But the point is that in Chrome OS, users are not given a choice. Instead, they are discouraged by the design from exploring enough that they can ever make a choice.

Exactly what license Chrome OS will be released under has yet to be announced. However, the project web page describes it as an open source project, and it appears to act like one. And perhaps it will be released under a BSD license, just as the browser has been. Yet although the software fits all these criteria for free software, if it does not offer users the chance to control their computing, then it has fallen short of the ideal.

Could Chrome OS be the Microsoft-killer that many people hope it will? I suspect not, because I am not sure that the vision behind Chrome of people spending most of their time in the browser or netbooks for light use are accurate.

Yet even if Chrome does succeed in countering the Microsoft monopoly on operating systems, I wonder if anyone will notice the difference.

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