Why is there no cloud-based operating system

Chrome OS under the microscope: is Google's operating system finally ready for the desktop?

Simple, secure and completely geared towards web use - surrounded by these promises, Google presented a new operating system at the beginning of December 2010: Chrome OS. Ten years later, at least one thing can be captured with certainty. Unlike Google's other major operating system, Android, Chrome OS has yet to conquer the world. According to the latest figures from Statscounter, it is only found on 1.53 percent of all desktop and laptop systems.

Niche meets growth

One statistic that does not do justice to the current situation, however, is that there are other points of view. There is the fact that practically all major laptop manufacturers now have Chromebooks in their range. And there are very good reasons for this: Chrome OS has carved out an extremely profitable niche for itself in the education sector. Chromebooks have dominated this segment in the US for years, but usage is also increasing in other countries. It is above all the extremely low maintenance requirements that attract the interest of educational institutions.

At the same time, there is another effect: While Chromebooks have long been almost exclusively in the low-price segment, there are now more and more models for medium and higher price regions. This is due not least to the growing interest shown by business customers, who are apparently increasingly appreciating the benefits of Google's system. All of this currently results in astonishing sales figures: not least because of the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, Chromebooks accounted for more than a tenth of all laptop and desktop systems sold in the third quarter of 2020.

All excellent reasons to take another look at what Chrome OS can do today and whether - and if so: for whom - it can be an alternative to classic desktop systems such as Windows or Mac OS.

The first impression

What is immediately noticeable with Chrome OS is the speed: The system has started up completely, most other laptops are still hanging around with the BIOS / UEFI screen. And that's not an exaggeration, booting hardly takes longer than five seconds, even with weaker Chromebooks. Setting up a Chromebook is just as quick: this process is completed with a few clicks - and then you can actually start.

But do, do! There's still one important note missing: Chrome OS isn't just from Google, it's a Google system through and through. A corresponding account is required to set it up - either a private account or a Google Workspace account from the company. So if you have a problem with that, you've come to the wrong place. There is a guest mode that has its advantages - for example, if you need a secure computer without locally stored data to enter untrustworthy countries - but it is not suitable for permanent use.

Everything in sync

The fixed cloud connection to Google also has advantages - after all, this means that all settings are automatically synchronized. This in turn means that moving from one Chromebook to another is a matter of minutes. Whether apps or wallpaper, everything is set up again automatically after logging in. It is precisely these things that make Chromebooks interesting for companies. After all, such an employee can seamlessly switch to another device if the current one is damaged or lost.

But Chrome OS has other advantages as well: there is the fact that it does not get littered in the same way as Windows, for example, over time. Even after years, a Chromebook is usually as fast as it was on the first day - thanks to constant updates and optimizations even faster. To be fair, it has to be emphasized that the Windows problem described is mostly due to individual programs and not to the operating system itself - but that doesn't matter to the users, as the result is the same.

Updates as they should be

One of the greatest strengths of Chrome OS, however, is the update system: there are simply no long waiting times, as you know from other systems. All new system versions are automatically downloaded during operation and installed in the background. The users are then informed about the availability of a new version. If you want to switch to this, a simple reboot is sufficient - and the system is available again in a few seconds. If this system sounds familiar to anyone: This is exactly the same approach that Android is now using. Strictly speaking, the mobile operating system has copied this A / B update system directly from Chrome OS.

Fortunately, that was it with the update similarities of Android and Chrome OS. Because Google has not made one mistake here: to let hardware manufacturers take control of software updates. Instead, with Chrome OS, all updates come directly from Google. In combination with the automatic update, this means that Chromebooks are actually always up to date, regardless of the manufacturer they come from. In some cases, some devices with larger features have an earlier turn, but the core is the same everywhere. So at least within the official support period. Google has continuously expanded this over the past few years; for somewhere between seven and nine years, Chrome OS devices are currently being supplied with new software versions.

Incidentally, this also means that tablets with Chrome OS - there is also one - are currently among the devices in this category that have been updated with the longest. A comparison that is admittedly easy to win against the sad reality in the Android world, but you also depend on Apple's iPad. Chrome OS releases new software versions every six weeks on average - these follow the rhythm of the Chrome browser with an interval of a few days.

Superficial considerations

The Chrome OS desktop is deliberately kept simple. At the bottom of the screen there is a panel with the most important programs, as usual, users can compile this list themselves. Also known from other systems: The system status area with time and date is located in the lower right corner. Clicking on it reveals the quick settings, which are not only visually reminiscent of their Android counterparts. At this point, for example, the network connection can be quickly changed or a Bluetooth device can be connected. Incoming notifications are displayed above all of this, and users can individually specify which programs and websites are allowed to send notifications here.

In the lower left corner is the button that opens the app launcher. After the first click there is only a search mask and a few recently used programs as well as documents or websites to be seen. Only in the next step is the complete program list displayed, which is arranged in a grid - this is also known from other systems. Many current Chromebooks also include the Google Assistant, which can be called up either via a special key or by voice command and is then available for any questions.

Web apps

The number of "pre-installed" programs is small. Strictly speaking, as it shouldn't be entirely surprising in a web-oriented system, most of them are links to the relevant websites. So for example on Youtube, Google Photos or Gmail. Some of them are of course not very useful without an Internet connection, others have long been equipped with offline support - such as Google Docs or Gmail. At the center of all of this is the Chrome browser on which it is all based.

Otherwise there are some simple default apps such as a calculator, a camera app or a program for viewing images with simple editing functions. And then there would be a file manager, which of course has a direct Google Drive connection. However, if you want, you can also completely deactivate it or integrate other cloud storage such as Onedrive or Dropbox. It should be emphasized that the local data storage is not automatically synchronized. If you want something in Google Drive, you have to put it in the appropriate directory.

Virtual desktops and multiple monitors

Multi-monitor support has been around for a number of years now, while support for virtual desktops is a little more recent. A concept that is mainly known from the Linux world and that is extremely useful for better organization of the various windows once you have familiarized yourself with it. Other features: The quick settings can be used to cast the entire desktop to a Chromecast, and there is a blue light filter for the evening hours. System-wide support for light and dark themes is still in development; this should follow in one of the next major updates.

An advantage for desktop users that should not be underestimated: Google attaches great importance to the fact that Chrome OS works perfectly with all the well-known video streaming services. The "Protected Content" support guarantees that Netflix, for example, also offers full 4K resolution, and the same applies to games streaming services such as Stadia. Something that is currently not the case on the Linux desktop, for example.

The smartphone connected

The interlinking with Android is also very useful. Using Smart Lock, for example, it is possible to unlock the Chromebook using an Android smartphone. A connected smartphone can also be used as a hotspot with one click. The "Nearby Sharing" support is still experimental - and does not work everywhere - to quickly exchange data wirelessly with Android devices or other Chromebooks. In the near future, a "Phone Hub" for Android devices will also be added so that they can be controlled remotely from Chrome OS, for example to track them down or switch them off.

The parental control functions are also integrated directly with their Android counterparts, with which access by children to websites and apps as well as the time of use can be limited. Similarly, of course, companies and educational institutions also have the option of defining all kinds of rules for their users.

The right touch

It was already mentioned that Chrome OS also supports tablets. Google's own Pixel Slate was badly panned for its poor touch optimizations when it was first introduced two years ago, but fortunately the software manufacturer has made numerous improvements in this regard since then. This can be seen in convertibles, for example, where individual elements are made larger in tablet mode so that they can be reached more easily with the finger. A relatively new feature is AI-based handwriting recognition for those devices that also offer pen control. And of course there is also a touch keyboard - a Chrome OS version of the Gboard known from Android.

It is also noticeable that Google has said goodbye to some fixed cloud connections in recent years, which Chrome OS has done quite well. If you were dependent on Google Cloud Print for a long time in order to be able to print something, there is now direct printer support, just as you are used to from other operating systems. And our own scanner app is also currently being developed.

Android

Now is the right time to reveal that the operating system, which is entirely geared towards the web, is no longer true. Because in addition to web apps, all reasonably current Chromebooks also support Android apps. This function can be activated via the system settings, then the Play Store is set up. This opens up a wealth of new possibilities. The palette ranges from games to remote desktop apps. All of this is tightly integrated with Chrome OS, so that even VPN connections initiated by an Android app apply to the entire system.

Android support is a real win, but it also has its weaknesses. The biggest problem remains that few Android apps have been optimized for large screens and then look rather lost on a laptop screen. And of course these apps make more sense where there is a touchscreen - after all, they were developed for finger control. Otherwise, Google tries hard to bring the systems together. In most cases, the window size of such apps can be freely changed, and they are displayed directly in the app launcher next to web apps.

Strictly speaking, the biggest problem for users is often deciding whether the web app or the Android app is more suitable for a certain service. In the long term, Google will not be able to avoid bringing all of this together in a common app store in order to clear up this confusion - and thus leave the recommendation to the developers.

Linux

With Android not enough, the current Chromebooks offer another way to get programs - they offer Linux support. This can also be activated again via the system settings, after which a minimal Debian 10 system is installed in a container. There are initially no graphical tools for installing programs, instead a simple terminal app is available. This can also be used to set up graphical Linux programs, which then also find their place in the app launcher with a suitable icon.

A certain familiarity with command line tools such as apt is currently essential for using Linux under Chrome OS, but that shouldn't be a major hurdle for the target group - Linux support is aimed primarily at developers. So it is no wonder that Google likes to advertise this feature with its own Android Studio development environment, not least because it closes a gap for its own employees, among whom Chromebooks are just as widespread as Android Studio use.

Firefox on Chrome OS

In any case, in this way there is access to the wide range of programs under Linux, from Libre Office to Gimp to Firefox, everything runs smoothly here. And yes, there is no misunderstanding: via Linux support, desktop browsers other than Google's own Chrome can also be used under Chrome OS. As a limiting factor, Debian does not always contain the latest versions of the respective programs. However, this can be avoided by using the cross-distribution Linux package format Flatpak and the range of apps on Flathub instead. And those who have even more curiosity can switch to new Debian test versions or even a completely different Linux distribution.

Since the first announcement, Google has consistently expanded its Linux support. Linux programs now have access to almost all hardware components of a Chromebook, with the exception of webcams, which is unpleasant with regard to video chat apps. Access to the USB port can also be passed on for this, which is important not least for the Android Studio mentioned above, in order to push new app versions to a test smartphone during the development process.

And Windows?

As flexible as Chrome OS may now be, it is of course not a direct Windows replacement due to a lack of program compatibility. But there is also recent progress in this regard. There is the crossover based on the free Windows API replica Wine, which has been officially available for Chrome OS for a few months. Classic virtualization support has recently been added: With the help of Parallels Desktop, Windows can be run in a virtual machine. Again, this is primarily intended for companies.

But one thing is also clear. Of course, with the multitude of program options, using and restoring Chrome OS becomes more complicated. The Linux system, for example, is not automatically synced, but at least there is a manual backup function. At the same time, however, it should not be forgotten: All of this is optional, for example, those who only get by with web and Android apps can still switch very quickly from one device to the next.

security

One of the great strengths of Chrome OS is security, as Google paid great attention to this topic during development. The automatic updates already mentioned play an important role in this, but the system is otherwise well-thought-out. At its core, it is a lean Linux system that was put together using the Gentoo build system. All data is encrypted by default, similar to what is the case with current smartphones. In addition, the system is protected against any manipulation with the help of Verified Boot. Instead of a classic BIOS or UEFI, Google relies on the open source alternative Coreboot as firmware, which is actively developed.

The situation is similar with the program execution: The web apps are anyway isolated by Chrome's sandbox. Android has its own sandbox, but there is also Google Play Protect as an additional layer of protection.And even Linux applications do not run directly on the basis of Chrome OS and its kernel, but isolated in a container. Incidentally, this separation means that each of these systems has its own area on the file system. However, the exchange is easily possible via the file manager.

Alternatives and open source

Speaking of locked: If you want to run a completely different system than Chrome OS on a Chromebook, you can still use Developer Mode, which cancels the relevant firmware locks. Then, for example, an independent Linux system can also run directly on the hardware. However, the hardware is not really made for this application - and it is unmistakably not the focus of Google. At least there are "factory images" for every Chromebook, which can be used to restore the software to its original state after any experiments.

When developing Chrome OS, Google took an open approach. This not only means that the source code is freely accessible, it is continuously updated online - a pleasing contrast to Android, where there are large code drops every year. This in turn means that there are hardly any secrets, new features appear at some point in the development versions until they are then passed through to the stable editions. Speaking of which: As with the Chrome browser, users can switch to developer and beta channels with Chrome OS if they want to test new versions in advance. If you have a particular tendency to take risks, you can even switch to a version called "Canary", which has the latest developments on a daily basis.

Good future prospects with ARM

An important point has to be mentioned with regard to the supported hardware: Chromebooks are available with both the x86 processors familiar from PCs and with ARM chips, such as those used primarily in smartphones, but also in the latest Macbooks. The good news: In practice it hardly makes a difference, web apps run independently of the processor anyway, and Android apps are also available for both systems. Linux is also available for ARM, only with the Windows VM it becomes more difficult.

This flexibility in turn means that Chrome OS is considerably better prepared for the emerging, increasing use of ARM chips in the desktop and laptop area than is the case with Windows, for example, where a proliferation of legacy software stands in the way . The fact that Google is rumored to be working on its own ARM processor for upcoming Chromebooks - and Pixel smartphones - makes this perspective even more interesting.

Free alternative

Finally, an alternative for all those who only want to get a taste of Chrome OS or want to run a similar system on discarded laptops without a Google connection. There is a suitable option for this with Cloudready, which has already been extensively tested elsewhere. You have to do without Android support with this one.

Conclusion

Chrome OS has really blossomed over the years. The prejudices that you can't do anything with Chromebooks without an internet connection have long since become obsolete thanks to better web apps, but also thanks to Android and Linux apps. Nevertheless, the hurdle of all hurdles still remains: Those who work professionally with a Windows system will simply not find some of their usual programs with Google's operating system - or only in limited detours.

On the other hand, if you don't have such special needs, Chrome OS is an excellent alternative - if you don't have any problems with the Google connection. Because it is much less problematic, faster and also more secure than a classic Windows system. And those who often take on administrative duties for the hardware of the entire family can save themselves a few nerve-wracking support calls. (Andreas Proschofsky, December 6th, 2020)