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The modern PC is a balky, recalcitrant device. No wonder people get frustrated, as my e-mail attests. Computers take too long to boot up. They’re laden with software programs bulked up beyond their primary use with bells and whistles most of us never use. They need constant updates and upgrades and, in the Windows world at least, continuing vigilance against viruses.

Google hears opportunity knocking in all of this. The company has announced the first versions of new computers using the Chrome operating system, or Chrome OS. Some people are calling these entries from Samsung and Acer ‘Chromebooks,’ a new niche based on taking not just the programs we use but the operating system itself onto the Web. Turn on a Chromebook and you’re immediately in the browser, from which you access everything you need to work.

Let’s think about the ramifications of this. The early Chrome OS devices will look like small laptops, but they’ll use programs available on the Web. For that reason, storage space isn’t an issue. You’ll have Web access to e-mail through Gmail, while documents and office software flow through Google Docs. The browser is Google Chrome, here deployed as a gateway to all your computing needs, from online calendar to cloud-based storage for photos and documents.

In this environment, you don’t have to worry about upgrading your programs - any changes to your word processor, for example, will happen in Google Docs and will simply show up the next time you turn on your machine. No more buggy older versions of programs that hackers love to exploit. With everything up to date, virus protection is more manageable, and Google says that Chrome OS was designed from day one to defend against malware and viruses. Automatic updates include any needed security fixes and are installed for you behind the scenes.

Google claims a startup time of eight seconds, so the boot up issue disappears as well. Needless to say, a Chromebook will come with built-in Wi-Fi and 3G because you’re going to be accessing everything on the Web, and I see that the 3G models will also be available on data plans through Verizon Wireless, which will include a free 100 MB per month of mobile data. When you’re not connected, you can take advantage of the many Web apps that work offline, finding these through Google’s Chrome Web Store. Remember, these are Web applications, so loading software from a CD (and entering that annoying serial number) is not necessary.

That’s Google’s obviously positive take, but will Chromebooks fly? Let’s say upfront that Chrome OS isn’t for power users anxious to exploit the most sophisticated software. You could consider a Chromebook an enhanced and highly modified netbook, a small PC aimed at mobility and armed with a new concept in operating systems. The early Chromebooks will cost a bit more than the average netbook, but you don’t have to buy any software, either. I see the Chromebook competing for the same dollars as tablets like Apple’s iPad, an easy way to use the Internet that gradually absorbs more and more of our computing time. But are people yet comfortable with cloud-based storage after well publicized glitches like Amazon’s recent downtime? And will Web apps working offline compare to the performance of local software?

Moreover, the Chrome OS experience will depend upon the quality of the connection, a daunting variable indeed. Chromebooks are appearing before high-speed wireless is truly ubiquitous, but they anticipate the day when it is, and we’ll watch them gain market share as their advantages are felt. The fact that updating and software maintenance is no longer an issue will prove tempting to educational institutions and, I would assume, for many a corporation. Google thus marginalizes Microsoft by simply bypassing it, promising mobility and a simplified user experience over the lifetime of the product. I think Chromebooks will have serious traction in the long run, but I see no consumer rush to embrace them like the one that greeted the iPad.

Paul Gilster

Paul Gilster is a longtime technology and aerospace writer with a fascination for how we use computers.

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