The second part of Google’s post-PC vision requires is even trickier to master.
I used the “stable” version of Chrome OS that comes with Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook on Google’s prototype the Cr-48 notebook, released last year, which has much the same hardware. The Samsung Series 5 will set you back $430 with 16 GB of storage and Wi-Fi only, or $500 for the same with 3G added (yes, it has less storage than you can get with the Galaxy Tab).
Learning how a Chromebook works is pleasant enough at first, as you adjust to a computer that takes just eight seconds to switch on from cold, and one second to wake from sleep (a state it can maintain for over a weekwhen starting with a full charge). The machine may be physically lightweight and have stripped-down functionality, but unlike some netbooks, it provides snappy access to even complex Web pages and handles full-screen Flash video just fine. Its settings menu is delightfully spare and really highlights the fun of junking a lot of stuff you always assumed had to be there in an OS.
But you soon hit the post-PC limitation of this vision: not being able to store files on your computer or do anything while offline. Users are encouraged to “install” Web apps from the Chrome Web store, but that essentially means adding a bookmark. File storage is intended to be via online services like Google Docs or Google’s beta cloud Music locker. (Google has said some of its services will work offline by later this year.)
Two recent additions to Chrome OS help, enabling you to view files that are on a USB drive and play music or video from a connected device, but both feel very primitive. When you can’t get Wi-Fi, or use 3G if your Chromebook has it, this vision of post-PC computing feels post-apocalyptic: everything digital you (digitally) own is gone, and your only chance of getting it back is to reinvent the Internet from scratch.
When you look at them together, it’s clear that each of Google’s two takes on a world beyond the PC demands considerably more of users than the simple, singular vision promoted by Apple. You’re expected to take a more active role in managing the complexity (Honeycomb) or the limitations (Chrome OS) of your device.
A deficiency the pair have in common is a lack of decent apps: the Chrome OS and Android tablet app stores are pitifully bare. Google claims that both are about to be saved by waves of innovative apps from third-party developers, but it’s an argument that feels persuasive only for tablets. Android phones had a few delinquent early years while their app ecosystem got started. But the Galaxy Tab’s groundwork of a richly featured if somewhat complex OS has been laid, and it just needs more app developers to come and build. The foundations of Chrome OS, however, are not so complete. Here Google is relying on developers to create powerful Web apps that work offline even before its own apps do so, or the OS feels like a finished product.
The two claws of Google’s pincer movement against traditional PCs may each offer more features - and complexity - than the iPad, but only one, Android Honeycomb, feels capable of doing as much damage as Jobs’ magical giant iPhone.