The power of this operating system comes from fact that you can’t download and install software. Other than the Web browser, anything that you might want to run has to be run out there on the Internet, ideally from Google’s cloud. For example, I clicked on a Web page containing a link to a PDF, and Chromium showed me the PDF’s contents by running it through Google Docs. I tried looking at my bookmarks, and they were all there–synched through my Google account. Even a YouTube video worked, although it was kind of slow on this old system.
What’s really revolutionary about Chrome is the way the operating system will secure and update itself. According to a video posted on the Google website by Google security engineer Will Drewry, Google knows in advance every application that will be run inside the Chrome OS. “We can secure them appropriately. Everything else is a web app.”
This means that things like Facebook, YouTube, and Google Calendar will run just fine. So will Quicken–provided that you are using the Web-based version rather than the one you download and install.
Of course even the rather small set of software installed on the netbook will need to be updated from time to time. When that happens, Chrome OS will actually create a second bootable copy of the operating system on the computer’s disk. Chrome OS will try to run this second copy the next time it boots. If the second copy works, it will become the primary copy. If it fails, the netbook will notice that the second copy didn’t work, it will report this back to Google, wipe the second copy, and try again. This is the same kind of technology that Google perfected for updating Windows-based helper apps like Google Toolbar and Google Desktop Search.
User data will be kept encrypted in a second partition on the netbook. If for some reason the netbook really won’t reboot, it will be possible to create a USB drive that will wipe the operating system and reload it with a fresh version–but leave the user’s personalized files intact. (Chrome OS will almost certainly support some kind of offline access to user data, probably using the “Google Gears” system that can be used now to provide offline access to Gmail or Google Reader when using Firefox, Internet Explorer, or the Chrome browser.
Although you can download and run Chromium OS now, I don’t recommend it. It’s hard to find reliable distributions of Chromium online (I tried several before settling on the one available at chromeos.hexxeh.net), the hardware integration is weak, and the user interface is really not finished. (For an idea of where Google is heading, check out this video by “Glen” at Google, or look at these Chrome OS tablet mock-ups.)
Even so, Chrome OS has big potential, and it could fundamentally change the way many of us interact with computers–so stay tuned.