Chrome OS: Will the real (potential) user please stand up?

Summary:After having a chance to play with the Google Cr-48 Chromebook prototype, I'm stymied as to who the real Chromebook user is supposed to be. So far, I don't see myself in that category.

Along with 59,999 or so other lucky folks, I've gotten a chance to play with the Cr-48 Chromebook prototype from Google.

(I'm not sure how a Microsoft watcher like me got on the short list. Maybe my "straying" from the Windows fold with an iPad earned me Google points? Regardless, thanks for the loaner, Google.)

The Cr-48 test machines shipped to us are  brand-less black notebook/netbooks. (The name is a play on words, with "Cr" representing the element Chromium and Cr48 an isotype of that element.) I know my ZDNet colleague Chris Dawson doesn't think the Cr-48 a netbook, but that seems to be the category it fits best, in my opinion.

I am not a netbook hater. In fact, when Windows 7 was released to market a year ago, I was leaning toward getting a Windows 7 netbook as my first new Windows PC in three years. (I ended up buying a "thin and light" laptop, but did get to play extensively with the Toshiba mini NB205 netbook and liked it a lot.)

What I appreciate primarily about netbooks is the portability factor. I think Microsoft and the majority of its PC partners have given short shrift to the growing category of users for whom size matters. The emphasis with Windows 7 on the consumer front, at least up until quite recently, has been how it looks and works on PCs with bigger, glossier screens. But anyone who has tried to use a 13-inch laptop on a plane, train or automobile knows, bigger isn't always better. Bigger PCs also typically consume more battery more quickly, which is another ding, in my opinion. A smaller PC with more battery life -- plus fast start-up and shut-down? Now that'd be a winner!

Does the Chromebook fulfill all these goals? No. The Cr-48 is not any lighter than most laptops. It's 12-inch screen means it isn't really much smaller. Its eight-hour battery life and fast hibernation/resume -- even at this beta stage -- does give it a leg up over many existing Windows PCs. I'm not really loving the new scrolling keys Google added to the Cr-48s. (If something's not broke, why "fix" it?) But otherwise, the Chromebook is a usable, fairly unexceptional netbook.

What about the OS itself? The Linux-based Chrome OS didn't bowl me over, to be honest.

I am used to the way Windows enables me to install and organize/store apps and data. That said, there are very very few non-Web apps that I use on my Windows 7 PC. As I've noted before, I spend the vast majority of my time consuming rather than creating content. When I do "create," I do most of my writing in Notepad and then cut and paste my text into WordPress or an e-mail message. These days, I create very few "documents" in Word, Excel or PowerPoint. And Chrome OS still allowed me to view Office documents via Office Web Apps. Yes, I missed my SnagIt program that lets me capture and save images, but wouldn't doubt there will be a Web-app version coming someday soon. And via Google's partnership with Citrix, I should be able to access any legacy apps I need that don't end ported to Chrome OS, I'd think.

It's kind of fun to search for apps in the Chrome Web Store. But Windows is getting the app store treatment, too. I don't care if I have to wait a bit for that.

Using the Chromebook over the weekend, I kept coming back to the "why not" question. Why not just put the Chrome browser on a Windows netbook? If Google's target with these machines and this OS is "people who live on the Web" -- in other words, just about any business or consumer customer -- why would they want a Chromebook instead of a PC?

With a PC, users have choices. They don't have to install Office or Photoshop or any other PC app. If they want, they can access Web apps and never install anything locally. With the Chromebook, I couldn't use anything that wasn't a Web app. Such an approach makes sense for users whose employers want to limit the apps their employees can access, but Windows PCs can be locked down, too. Can't I do exactly what I can with the Cr-48 on my Toshiba netbook, running my choice of Chrome, Internet Explorer and/or Firefox?

I don't mind losing certain features and functionality if the trade-off is worth it. With the iPad, I can't install certain  Windows apps to which I've grown accustomed, like the Zune client and Word. But the form factor size, portability, battery life, instant-on/off and access to a centralized app store make this trade-off OK in my book. With the Cr-48, I don't see what I am gaining; I just see what I am missing.

If you're an ABM (Anything But Microsoft) shop or household, the Chrome OS and a Chromebook might make sense for you. But if the first shipping Chromebooks are priced anywhere near $500 when they hit in mid-2011, I don't see why users wouldn't just buy netbooks instead. (When Google first announced plans for Chrome OS a year-plus ago, the thinking was that machines running the OS would be cheaper than Windows PCs because OEMs wouldn't have to pay for a Windows license. I haven't heard that argument lately for whatever reasons....)

I'm stymied as to who the real Chromebook user is supposed to be. So far, I don't see myself in that category. What about you?

Topics: Google, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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