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Is Chrome a Truly Cloud-Centric Operating System?

written by: •edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 8/26/2011

Chrome has been billed as an operating system that relies on the cloud, but if this was really true surely the bandwidth costs would be astronomical?

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    Google’s Chrome OS is an open source operating system that is most commonly found on netbooks, specifically the short-lived ChomeBook device, although it can be installed on desktop computers and laptops, even some tablets.

    While you might think that Google already had a suitable operating system in the shape of Android for mobiles and tablets, Chrome OS is a different proposition, offering users the facility to use their computers in a completely new way. Instead of installing applications from the web or from a disk, with Chrome OS only existing online services can be used, the majority of which are provided by Google.

    Chrome OS is cloud computing at its most pure, and this is where the problems arise. If you don’t have access to a wireless network or have a generous mobile Internet contract, then using Chrome can prove difficult at times. Even if you do have these and your netbook is connected to the Internet, the bandwidth Chrome OS uses could soon milk you dry.

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    Chrome OS Explained

    Chrome OS in action When you switch on a standard computer, the operating system and its user interface acts as a layer between you and the hardware, allowing you to control various user interface and storage devices, and install software. Almost every task you perform is represented by the friendly action of moving a mouse and clicking, while in the background the operating system is performing complicated calculations in order to apply your actions.

    With Chrome OS, much of this still applies but the really complicated data processing that would take place when you use a web browser or send an email is performed remotely, in the cloud.

    What this means is that while apps are available for Chrome, many of them feature no device-side processing, existing as little more than widgets that provide access to web-based applications. For example, if you created a document in Google Docs, the word processor runs within your browser and the data is stored remotely. This is in contrast to a desktop computer running Microsoft Word, where all of your formatting and text entry functions are processed by the local CPU, and the document is stored locally.

    Of course, this brings various issues, such as the capability of the web server to deal with multiple cloud users or the reliability of the web app in question when faced with a loss of Internet connectivity.

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    How Bandwidth is Used

    A handful of phrases should have caught your eye in the previous section:

    • web browser
    • the cloud
    • device side processing
    • stored remotely

    These all indicate the strength and weakness of Chrome OS: its reliance on having an Internet connection for your device. However we should also be aware of issues at the server side, where multiple cloud users can have a detrimental effect on the server's own data processing bandwidth.

    Using a cloud-centric operating system brings with it a whole new way of computing – as well as a completely new approach to data and processing.

    Chrome OS delivers a new user paradigm, but it also requires a different kind of responsibility. For instance, when you access your Gmail account in Chrome OS, you are using your Internet connection to send and receive information.

    Browsing the web, using Google Docs or accessing a service like Picasa or Facebook to upload photos all need your Internet connection, and there is little that you can do when running Chrome that doesn’t require wireless or mobile Internet access.

    If you have access to a Wi-Fi network then this probably won’t be a problem, but should your Internet come to your Chrome OS computer via 3G or 4G, then you could quickly chalk up some high bills based on data and bandwidth overuse. Simply multi-tasking a couple of different apps on Chrome OS could prove expensive.

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    Is Working Offline an Option?

    Despite being conceived as a cloud-based operating system, it has become clear over the past few months that cloud computing is still too immature for Chrome OS to survive. As a result, several manufacturers of devices running Chrome have persuaded Google to permit the use of file manager and offline working.

    One place where this will come in particularly useful is with Google Docs, the cloud-based office system, which requires an always-on Internet connection to write, edit and save word processed documents, spreadsheets and presentations when accessed via your web browser.

    Certainly if you have any concerns about the amount of bandwidth your ChromeBook or Chrome OS computer is using, you should be opting to use the offline options for anything that you plan to be using regularly, such as Google Docs, the streamed music service, etc.