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.
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
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