I've been testing out a prototype of Google's Chrome OS laptop for about a week now, and while I love certain things about the device my mind keeps coming back to the fact that it would be so much nicer if it could boot a "real" operating system as well.
Chrome OS makes Web surfing an incredibly pleasant and secure experience, but most of the knocks against it relate to what it can't do - namely, nearly everything traditional desktop operating systems like Windows, Mac and Linux can. You want a file system? You want to install a piece of software that runs offline and outside the browser? Not on Chrome OS.
But how great would it be if you could choose either Chrome OS or a regular operating system each time the device starts up? You can easily install Linux alongside Windows, so why not a traditional Linux distro alongside Chrome OS, which runs Linux underneath the Web browser anyway?
An Engadget post says that "certified" Chrome OS laptops, when they become commercially available in mid-2011, will not support dual booting with any non-Google operating system. I haven't been able to confirm yet whether this is true, but it is certainly very difficult to boot a second operating system onto the Cr-48 prototype version that Google has shipped to thousands of testers and journalists.
I recently resurrected a four-year-old Dell Latitude laptop that was running Windows XP by replacing the Microsoft operating system with Ubuntu Linux. I had upgraded to Windows 7 at work, and this old computer was just gathering dust. Startup times were far too slow to make it usable.
But that all changed when I wiped Windows off the machine and installed Ubuntu. Now this four-old hunk of junk starts up faster than my brand new Windows 7 ThinkPad, and Web surfing is a breeze. I'm not saying it's better than the ThinkPad, just that it boots up faster and provides good basic Web surfing. If I want to watch live streaming video in high quality, I still need the new Windows 7 computer.
All of this made me think what an improvement it would be for Chrome OS if you could get a standard Linux distro working on the machine as well. The device itself has limited functionality, which helps enhance security, but if a user wants another operating system in addition to Chrome OS I don't think Google should object.
So I was happy to see that a step-by-step installation guide for booting Ubuntu on Cr-48 has now appeared. I don't think it was written by a Google employee, but it is being hosted on what appears to be Google's official Chromium project site.
I am new to Linux and have not attempted this yet, but I imagine that people with extensive experience running Linux programs would be able to get it done, although it is definitely far more complicated than booting Linux on a Windows PC.
If you're one of the lucky Cr-48 owners, check the instructions out for yourself and see what you think. The process involves putting Cr-48 into developer mode, freeing up SSD space for Ubuntu, and then using the VirtualBox desktop virtualization software to port Ubuntu onto the Google PC. You'll have to have both Cr-48 and a separate Linux workstation.
Obviously, Google wants to target a wide audience with Chrome OS. Because it's devoted solely to Web browsing, I think it would appeal to many people who need only limited computer access - and these probably aren't the types who want to spend a lot of time in command-line interfaces so they can use Ubuntu Linux alongside Chrome OS.
That's why I think Google should give all users an easy way to add a traditional operating system to Chrome OS devices when they finally do hit the market. The developer prototype has a USB slot, so it shouldn't be that difficult.
A dual-booting Chrome OS/Linux machine might fly in the face of Google's "100% Web" philosophy, but so does providing offline access to Google Docs, which is expected before the commercial release of Chrome OS netbooks. Dual-booting would provide users both the extreme simplicity of Chrome OS (which is appealing) and a full operating system when needed. We'll just have to wait and see what Google's plans are as they continue to evolve over the next six months.