Why Chrome OS Is Still a Big Lie

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Google likes to say that Chrome OS is an operating system that lets you do everything on the web. Don’t believe it.

Until now, I’ve been pretty optimistic about Google’s web-based operating system. The idea of computing entirely over the Internet is a tantalizing taste of the future, and I’ve certainly enjoyed watching the Chrome Web Store become a discovery point for awesome web services.

But at the Google IO conference today, the search giant made a rather disappointing announcement: After months of feedback from beta testers, Chrome OS would finally get a file browser for locally-stored data.

Google should never have listened to those people.

Here’s the problem: Chrome OS’s file browser isn’t meant for significant amounts of data, because Chromebooks will run on solid state drives with little room for local storage. The idea is that you’ll store all your data online, so it’s never tied to a single piece of hardware.

That’s a great idea, but Chrome OS doesn’t provide a web-based alternative to the file browser. Instead, users are on their own to choose from third-party services like Box.net and Dropbox. Those services are okay, but they’re not native file browsers. To get your data onto a service like Box.net, you’ll have to download it to Chrome OS, then upload it back to the storage service. That’s a messy solution.

What Chrome OS really needs is a web-based file manager that’s fully integrated with the operating system, so although it looks like you’re storing files locally, what you’re really doing is putting them on Google’s servers. You grab a picture from a friend’s Facebook page, or a sample MP3 from an indie band’s website, and those files stay online. The act of “downloading” would really be a file transfer from one location on the web to another.

Instead, Chrome OS expects users to store all their data in individual services. Your photos go to Picasa. Your spreadsheets go to Google Docs. Your music goes to Google Music.

I’m not convinced people are comfortable having their files tied up in specific services. That might work for casual computing devices, like iPads, but it won’t fly for serious work on a laptop. Users need a central repository for all their precious data so it can be easily transferred to any number of web services. Chrome OS doesn’t provide this service. Until that changes, you won’t be able to do everything on the web.