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TECH TRENDS

Google previews operating system

Its cloud-based applications work only with an Internet connection.

December 25, 2010|Craig Howie

Google's very own computer operating system has arrived, just before time would have run out on a promise.

In July 2009, the company -- in its continuing effort to take over the tech universe -- said it would introduce its all-new Google Chrome operating system in 2010, specifically designed for lightweight laptops.

The system would be cloud-based, Google said, wiping out the need for on-board operating systems that add to the cost of computers.

Imagine no more Windows. It's easy if you try.

This month Google sent out the operating system.

But one catch. Neither the operating system nor a laptop to run it on are available to buy -- Google sent out a work-in-progress version of the system and a test laptop to tech reviewers across the nation to try out.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 26, 2010 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Google Chrome: A technology review in some editions of the Dec. 25 Business section said that Google would be releasing its new Chrome operating system for laptop computers as well as a self-branded laptop to run it on. In fact, Google will not be producing the laptop, which will be made and sold by other companies.

The system and laptop offered a tantalizing and, at times, frustrating look at how cloud computing could work.

Because all the applications used to do work or play on a computer -- whether for word processing, playing a game or photo editing -- are not stored on the machine in this type of system, they are accessed only online. This makes the system speedy, at least for the most part, and eliminates the need for the user to install updates.

But there is one big disadvantage to having all apps in the cloud: If you are in a place where you do not have access to the Internet, you can't use any of the applications.

Some data, such as word processing files and photos, can be stored on the machine, however.

Another situation that could be a problem for many: Because this is not the Microsoft or the Apple operating system, users will not be able to use many familiar programs.

That's likely to be key to Google's strategy -- users would be using, much of the time, the company's own programs. Many of them are already available and familiar -- Gmail and the Chrome Web browser, to name a couple of them.

But a lot of brand-name software will not be available -- no Word, Photoshop, Final Cut or iTunes. For many people, that will make the Chrome system a no-go from the get-go.

Apps that can be used with the new operating system often are significantly cheaper than traditional programs or even free. Some sophisticated apps can be used with the payment of a monthly subscription, instead of a one-time, high payment.

Because most information is stored centrally, users' files are less likely to be victims of a computer crash or system failure. Files also are accessible from different computers, which makes cloud-based computing attractive for businesses or organizations.

The test laptop itself resembled a MacBook in terms of dimensions and functionality, with a similar touchpad, keyboard layout and screen. Notably, the matte-black keyboard lacked the top row of command keys. And in the normal spot for the caps lock button there was instead a search button.

The laptop, which was probably a draft version of the computers that will eventually run the system, lacked Apple luxuries such as lighted keys -- useful for night typing -- and multiple USB ports.

Start-up time for the laptop was impressive -- I opened it up and it was ready to go in a few seconds. It booted up even faster than an Acer netbook I use.

The initial thing that appeared on the screen was the Chrome browser. Then the user goes from there to other spots on the Web, or to the apps.

For first-time users, Google has developed a simple and effective introduction that guides users through the laptop's functionality. The introduction takes about 10 minutes and it's fun.

Browsing performance was good, as expected. The version of the Chrome browser for the laptop has more bells and whistles than the stripped-down ones used on smart phones and tablets.

As for apps, which can be downloaded, I enjoyed using the Picnik picture editing app, as well as the Gilt app for designer shopping.

Editing video online was not so great, however -- a heavy-duty function like that works better, at this point, on a machine that stores its own apps. And as regular Google Docs users know, cloud-based word processing can be subject to stultifying delays. Saving a document can be especially slow if an Internet connection is iffy.

The ultimate success of the operating system will depend on how comfortable users feel working in the online sphere.

If the cloud-based software continues to evolve, a laptop equipped with the operating system could make for an attractive proposition for Santa's sleigh next year.

--

craig.howie@latimes.com

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