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Google Chrome OS usage basics

While Google Chrome OS will no doubt change over the next year as feedback flies in--note the sharp difference between this model and how Microsoft developed Windows 7, or how Apple develops all products, in secrecy--some fundamental things will not change.

First, it will look like Chrome, with a browser-like window, with tabs at the top, and a combination address bar/search box. However, in Chrome OS, there are two types of tabs. To the left on the tab strip are smaller tabs, denoted only by icons (and not label text) which represent application tabs. On the right side of the tab strip are more typical browser tabs that represent standard web pages.

 

Google Chrome OS preview

"You can take any of your favorite \[web\] applications and, with one click, pin it to be a favorite application," Pichai said. "We call these application tabs. Once you choose something as an application tab, they always stay in place." As you open and close "normal" browser tabs, the application tabs always stay in place on the left and are always available.

In addition to this method of accessing applications, Google provides an App Menu button at the top left of the screen. When you click this button, a new tab opens with an icon-based grid of available web applications. "The UI here is going to change," Pichai said. "But we really want you to be able to discover new applications plus access your top applications."

Google Chrome OS preview

Some apps trigger notification-like pop-ups, which Google calls "moles" internally because they "come from underground." Externally, they're really called panels. Panels are persistent lightweight windows that do not take up the entire screen and exist outside of the main browser window. They can be minimized to the bottom of the screen (otherwise, they sit on top of the main Chrome window.) They will be managed automatically, though Google wasn't clear on how this would happen. One example panel is the Contacts list, which feeds of out Google Contacts/Google Talk. Another is Notepad, a basic text editor which integrates with Google Docs. (Remember, all Chrome OS data is stored in the cloud.) There's also a MySpace digital music player that exposes itself as a panel.

Google Chrome OS preview

Google Chrome OS preview

Google Chrome OS preview

Addressing the fact that today's PC users typically have multiple independent windows open simultaneously, Pichai showed off how Chrome OS handles this scenario. It's pretty cool, and if you're familiar with the side-to-side swiping that the Palm Pre's WebOS uses to switch between applications, you'll get this UI paradigm immediately. You switch between windows (or, "separate Chrome instances") via a little widget in the top right of the screen. Or, you can access a unique All View mode that shows previews of each window, similar to how taskbar thumbnails work in Windows 7: Each window thumbnail triggers a pop-up when you mouse over them, providing thumbnails for each tab in the window.

Google Chrome OS preview

This screen also includes a handy "+" button for opening new windows, and you can drag and drop window tabs between windows to manage them how you want.

Google Chrome OS preview

Also addressing one of the more vocal (if obvious) complaints about Chrome OS, Pichai said that he expected Chrome OS-based netbooks to be great entertainment devices that can play music and movies, play games, provide access to digital photos and eBooks, and work as general purpose computers. To this end, Pichai demoed a Flash-based chess game that offers 3G graphics and, thanks to the underlying browser, a full screen mode.

Google Chrome OS preview

He also showed off a Google Books demo with a scanned version of "Alice in Wonderland."

Google Chrome OS preview

With regards to USB storage devices, Chrome OS will trigger a browser tab-based file browser when such devices are plugged into the computer. "This is a rough concept," Pichai said.

Google Chrome OS preview

Chrome OS handles common file types in interesting ways. For example, Microsoft Excel files won't open in Google Docs as you might expect, but, humorously, in Microsoft's Excel Web App (currently in beta). "Microsoft launched a killer app for Chrome OS," Pichai joked. "They've been working very, very hard to do this. But the point here is that Chrome OS does not have a proprietary app framework. Anyone who writes a web application is writing an application for Chrome OS." PDF files, meanwhile, open right in the browser.

Google Chrome OS preview

When you plug a digital camera into a Chrome OS-based machine, a Content Browser panel appears, and you can pull pictures off individually. This is fairly limited, of course, but when you consider that Google owns a high-capacity web-based photo storage site (Picasaweb), the possibilities become immediately apparent.

When you select a video on the device, it plays via the panel. "We just want computers to be delightful and to just work," Pichai added.

Google Chrome OS preview

Schedule

Google Chrome OS will ship about a year from now. Pichai said at the event that the company was "a year away from announcement" but "has made tons of progress."

Go to market

Google also discussed its plans for how it will bring Chrome OS to consumers. This was actually a big surprise. Unlike most Google products and services, which are readily available online for one and all, Chrome OS will be sold only on new netbook hardware next year from a variety of unspecified PC makers. No pricing was announced, but we can assume that Chrome OS-based netbooks will cost less than comparable Windows 7-based netbooks. (And about $600 less than the cheapest Mac notebook.)

Final thoughts

While I still have questions, I'm excited about Chrome OS and Google's plans for the future of computing, which mesh nicely with my own opinions about where the industry is heading. I believe that the age of the heavy, unmanageable, locally installed Windows application is coming to a close and that Chrome OS or something much like it will be the mainstream consumer computer of the future. The future of computing, as I've said before, is mobile and connected. That's exactly what Chrome OS offers, and it brings the cloud computing vision ever closer to reality. This is a development I'll be watching closely in the weeks and months ahead.