Is Google Chrome OS a compromise?

The Chrome Operating System (OS) is a Linux-based OS, designed and developed by Google to work exclusively with applications delivered via a web browser on lower specification netbook hardware. It was launched in July 2009, a couple of months before Google announced its open source version, Chromium OS.

Unlike Chromium OS, Chrome OS only works on ‘Chromebooks’, which are netbooks created by Google’s manufacturing partners – at present, only Samsung and Acer make them. They are intended to be used with an almost permanent internet connection and to get the best performance you will need 3G+ or broadband.

Who is it suitable for?

The OS features just three applications: the Google Chrome web browser, a file manager and a media player. Although this lightweight specification means a machine start up time of under 20 seconds, it is only suitable for internet connected businesses or home users with broadband access.

Any additional applications used must be delivered and used via the Chrome web browser, primarily via Google’s App Marketplace and Docs applications. If your Chrome OS device is not connected to the internet then there is potentially very little it can do. This is certainly a weakness that Google is aware of and actively trying to resolve.

The Google Docs suite of programs that mimic Microsoft Office products (word processor, spreadsheet, calendar and presentation tools) will be the primary tools for the Chromebook user, all of which can be accessed using a regular Google identity (Gmail account).

With its lack of pre-installed applications, Chrome OS is not intended for resource intensive programs or power users, and even websites that rely heavily on Flash could be impeded.

Security

Whilst it could be argued that the Chrome OS functionality – and more – is already available by other netbook users running Windows, Linux and Mac (if you include the MacBook Air) operating systems, Google claims that its Chrome OS is the most secure OS that exists.

This is because of technical checks made during start-up, as well as the fact that the stripped down OS does not allow users to use downloaded programs – leaving almost no opportunity for virus attacks.

As Chrome OS devices are ‘locked down’ (users cannot add, remove or modify programs) they will be more secure than other netbooks and less susceptible to virus infection. This will also simplify the IT department’s task of monitoring and controlling licensing and licensed software on many devices – one account will control all applications.

Other netbooks may offer more flexibility in terms of available applications and software installations, but this is at the expense of potential security compromise and virus infection.

One major benefit of the increased security aspects of the OS and device, which I think is being overlooked, concerns mobile users moving between offices. In transit between offices or VPN access points, the Chromebook does not contain data, thereby loss of the machine minimises loss or exposure of data.

Printing

Printing to devices directly connected to Chrome OS machines is not supported but is enabled via a cloud service acting as a remote printer driver and print queue. This removes the need to update the Chrome OS device with new printer drivers, something that can cause issues in distributed IT environments.

The success of this approach will rely on the service (provided by Google) being kept up to date and also means that only network printers can be supported. Like the Google Chrome browser, the Chrome OS should automatically update itself, but that does take the control away from the IT department.

The verdict

Chrome OS is about compromise; less computing power for cheaper hardware, less flexibility for increased security and simplified maintenance. Currently, Chrome OS will only fully satisfy business users that use Google Docs or web-only applications (such as those delivered via intranets) and cannot currently be viewed as an alternative to desktop or even netbook hardware and operating systems.

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James Huckle is the Technical Operations Director at Amaze. He is responsible for Internal and external technical consultancy for web content and web engagement platforms. James also manages the technical relationship with Amaze's key CMS partners and has experience and knowledge in many of the leading Content Management platforms. As part of his role, he is responsible for the leadership of the technical architects and all development teams. James works on some of Amaze’s key Pan-European and Global clients, such as Bridgestone and Unilever.