Chrome OS beta and thoughts on stripped-down OSs

I have the “Cherry” build of the Google Chrome OS running on a Lenovo S10-2 Atom-based netbook. This build, compiled and distributed by @hexxeh enables WiFi connections on the Broadcom wireless cards common on many netbooks and fixes the ethernet-only state in the “Thanksgiving” build I tested ten days ago.

I showed the build connected to my new Verizon 3G Mifi to the industry analysts last week and they were pretty impressed, though none, including myself, are big fans of the sub-10″ screen form factor and overall ergonomics of the netbook. Still, if the cost of Microsoft XP or Windows 7 is taken out of the bill of materials for a netbook, and a stripped down OS such as Chrome or Android or some other variants — Jolicloud, even Ubuntu — then the retail price of a netbook starts to fall under $300.

Of course a consumer — in exchange for a two-year 3G contract with a carrier — can get a nice netbook for free today. The acceptance of that contract (about $40 to $60 a month) in addition to the consumer’s cellphone account, home DSL or cable modem, satellite TV …. well, 3G wireless  contracts are a nice-to-have service in good economies, and a hard-to-justify one in times like this. Of course a MiFi sold into a family as the wireless broadband connection to be shared with up to five netbooks is an interesting option (were it not for the 5 gigabyte monthly data cap imposed by the carriers).

My early impressions of Chrome remain positive. At first I was just plain happy to be able to proclaim “power to browser in ten seconds” — but limitations in the beta code make that more like power to working, connected browser in five minutes due to weirdness with the Broadcom wireless chipset. Hexxeh nailed the chipset, and following his simply instructions I downloaded the build via BitTorrent, unpacked the tar file, imaged it into a 4 gig usb drive, set the boot order priority on the S10 to seek the USB first, and then voila — right into the Chromium screen, simple log in, browser, and about five minutes of waiting before the radio detected my home wifi signal.

From there the experience is very stable, and very Chrome. What does that mean? It means you log in via your Google Gmail account, build bookmark shortcuts to your calendar, docs, gmail, etc. and all you ever see is browser. There’s no way to minimize the Chrome interface. The browser is the desktop. One analyst said, “Great. But after 30 minutes you’re going to want to run something you can’t and then the game is over.” Okay, noted. But with the Chromium extensions and Google’s devotion to gadgets and the Android app store model — how long until I simply say, “I need a screen capture extension” and I can go find one.

The killer app for this scenario seems to always come back to Apple iTunes — see this post by  Ben Lipman, formerly at Warner Music about the significance of the Apple/Lala deal. Music is incredibly important for consumers, but … relying on a focus group of two college-age children, iTunes is not a huge concern except for managing content on an iPhone or iPod. With apps like Doubletwist taking away the deathgrip of Apple’s “authorized computer” model, and with consumers turning to cloud based music players like iMeem, YouTube (music is the dominant content category on YouTube, the world’s second biggest search engine), etc., I hear more and more that the younger generation sees no need to locally possess a music file except when it comes to transferring it to a portable player for use on the road.

Having just tried to purchase and activate a Microsoft Office 2007 license on my new ThinkPad T500 at the jaw dropping price of $300+, and watching those same two college students tell me Google Docs was perfectly acceptable for their needs …. I think stripped down cloud-oriented operating systems combined with cloud-based productivity and entertainment apps are going to catch on in the next 24 months, especially as the definition of a net book moves away from the current hardware standard of sub-11 inch screens and Atom processors to low voltage, ARM-based systems running these stripped down browser-centric operating systems.

Simply put — Chromium OS will do for cloudbooks or smartbooks what Android is doing to smartphones — cracking the barrier to entry erected by Apple and Microsoft and making the OS an irrelevant consideration for  manufacturers speeding product to market — e.g., a PC company or handset manufacturer no longer need to factor OS licenses into its bill of materials.

next: app stores for netbooks?

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