Will Google's Chromebooks Play Well with Linux?

Tuesday May 31st 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Google’s forthcoming Web-centric Chromebooks are likely to offer an overly controlled computing experience.

The new Chrome OS "Chromebooks" are right around the corner. And if you're anything like me, the question about how this affects the rest of the Linux ecosystem is a nagging concern for you.

Google has been supportive of Linux on the desktop and various open source applications, and has also pushed to get an iOS alternative into the mainstream with Android on smartphones. Yet, despite these positive considerations, I find myself with reservations about the Chromebook.

It's more of a feeling than anything rational I can point to. After all, the Chromebook is still waiting to be released to the public. So judging the concept too early might be a mistake, even if it does seem like they're taking the Linux kernel into uncharted water.

All signs point to Google

Google's Web applications are as unimpressive as Microsoft’s attempt to succeed in the search engine market. Both efforts are usable enough, yet each of them fail to offer a clear motivation to get someone to change their existing way of doing things.

So the idea of early adopters being excited about Google's new Chrome OS netbooks seems both premature and completely silly. Especially since it's going to be a limited experience, full of bugs and frustration. It's a beta concept at this stage. Still think I'm concerned over nothing? Consider the following thoughts below.

First of all, you're entrusting your entire computing experience to the Google cloud. Think about this for a moment: according to this Chromebook document, Google accounts are used to sign into the Chromebook. This isn't speculation, rather Google's own claim that a simple Web login is all that protects your privacy from prying eyes.

Google, you've got to be kidding me!

Not only are end-users entrusting their support needs to a Web forum, they'll also be hoping their Google Web accounts are secure. I can't speak for anyone else, but I think I'll pass on placing that much trust in a Web server and a password to handle all my data.

But wait, there's more! Google has also worked hard to make sure that your printer will be completely useless when connected to your new Chromebook. That's right, unless you happen to have an ePrint compatible HP printer, using the Chromebook to print is apparently not an option.

The best part: if you wish to connect to a standard printer at all, you must jump through more hoops and run Windows or OS X on a separate computer. Comically, no Linux support is provided for this separate computer despite the Chrome OS itself being using the Linux kernel to operate.

Potentially a black cloud for Linux

After establishing Google's non-use of Linux printing technologies like CUPS, one has to wonder how these negatives aspects of Chromebook will further effect Linux users! While it's true that one can always choose not to buy a Chromebook, this doesn't change the irritation experienced when trying to follow Google's thinking on dealing with perpherials.

The problem is that instead of customizing a Linux distribution to use different Linux technologies, Google is funneling users into their own applications. To the end-user, this isn't a Linux-based experience on the Chromebook. Instead, it's just some Google-based operating system that makes printing a pain in the backside!

One could even argue that embracing the Chromebook is essentially worse than Google not supporting a Linux desktop experience. To the untrained eye, it seems as if Google is diverting attention and resources away from the Linux desktop and into the Chrome OS way of doing things.

Consequently, any potential for mainstream press going to Ubuntu, Fedora, and OpenSuSE, will instead go to this new Microsoft/Apple competitor known as Chrome OS.

Community Inc.

I realize that Google Code and related projects have done tremendous good for the open source community. But instead of borrowing from the work done within this community, Google is choosing to basically work around the fruits from this labor.

Google Code projects aren't some charity group begging for Google's funding. They've been given a chance to serve as part of a larger ecosystem to help Google in the long run. Instead, it feels like the biggest Linux-based aspect is really just the kernel, foregoing many other components that make up the Linux desktop experience. Perhaps there are some related projects being used within the Chrome OS. Unfortunately it's difficult to know this, considering how everything seems to lead to the Chrome experience only.

I'm not suggesting that Google chooses one of the community provided desktop environments, rather that they use other aspects of the Linux desktop instead. I want to see functionality like CUPS printing, SANE scanning, and no limitations on the abilities of the USB port.

Restricting how one uses the computer is why projects like Zonbu (among others) have failed. So stop limiting the end-user! Instead, just allow the kernel to support what it does and let the users be free from restriction by utilizing other Linux desktop functionality.

A case for Google's walled garden

Brushing aside my frustration with Google's restrictions on peripherals, native applications, among other annoyingly controlling aspects, the Chromebook could still be a hit with the public.

We must remember that to the young social media crowd, life is already "in the cloud." The idea of not relying on localized applications; everything feeling like the Chrome Web browser, and so on, isn't all that alien of an idea. The concept may make me cringe, but Google has likely done enough research to believe they're on to something positive.

The Chromebook benefits are attractive to those willing to trade their freedom for security. Data encryption, verified booting and sandboxing can sound comforting to the non-technical type. Even better is that the Chromebook provides the end-user with a handy recovery feature. This alone provides peace of mind.

With security, a controlled environment, and familiar Web applications that many people are already using, I can see why casual users might be inclined to give the Chromebook serious consideration.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

I've read many reports stating that the Chromebook will be a netbook only success, as such a walled garden-like experience would never work on larger desktop PCs.

Perhaps this is true, considering that users have lower expectations from netbooks than with desktop computers. At the same time, Chrome OS's approach to security could influence other Linux projects in the future, as concepts filter down from the Chromium project.

Understanding what is being developed by Google in this way means that perhaps Chromebooks and the Chrome OS project isn't all bad. If they're able to find ways to make Linux on the desktop a friendly user experience using their own applications, so be it. The best part is that we have another desktop operating system competing for the portable market on netbooks besides Windows.

So where does this leave the Linux desktop then? Will Google and the Chromebook put the Linux platform into second place, as the Chromebook is sure to hog the headlines over everyone else?

I suppose it's possible that the press will clamor to Google's latest offering. Yet at the same time, I see the audience the Chromebook is targeting as being completely different from that of Linux desktop. Speaking for myself, however, I will not be joining those who have decided that the Chromebook is the next big thing. It simply lacks too many things that I value in lieu of having an overly controlled environment.

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