Chrome OS gets strong rebukes for privacy, pointlessness

Amid lukewarm receptions by reviewers, Google's netbook OS gets strong words from the GNU founder and GMail's creator.

In the past week and a half, Google’s Chrome OS has garnered quite a few headlines. Some of them have been for the demo of the OS itself and Google’s web apps store, but many were for early reviews of Chrome OS running on the Cr-48 (Google’s reference notebook for the platform). Most of the reviews have been lukewarm about the OS and the Cr-48 (though this isn’t the hardware that will ship with Chrome OS next year – actual shipping models will be made by various manufacturers much the way Android devices are).

One of the big criticisms of Chrome OS is that it is entirely web-based and built on a network computing model in which no data is permanently stored on a Chrome OS device (no file system is even available to the user). That may be attractive to IT, but even experienced tech journalists penning the reviews say that’s jarring to them and it will likely be a major culture and workflow shock to users.

Even with the centralized model for data storage that IT might prefer and the ease of deployment (since no software needs to be installed and there are minimal settings to configure), some IT departments may be hesitant to put so many proverbial eggs in Google’s basket or to force users into a new model of working (particularly with investments in other office tools and collaborative suites that may not integrate well with Chrome OS). Virtual desktop solutions like those offered by Citrix may actually be a preferred network computing model because they can be hosted internally or externally and can offer the experienced of a desktop interface (even if they interface is completely generated by a server or cloud deployment).

There’s also the argument that Chrome OS may be to late to the party as the general trend in mobile computing has shifted to tablets and discreet apps that leverage Internet capabilities for specific tasks rather than putting all apps in a browser environment, which I discussed last week.

More recently, Chrome has gotten some hefty criticisms from the open source and social media community, which could be even more damaging than anything reviewers or pundits have offered up.

Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU public license under which a good deal of open source software (including Linux on which Chrome OS and Android are based) is made available, delivered a stern rebuke. Stallman argued that Chrome OS encourages “careless computing” more than adoption of cloud services. Stallman’s primary argument is in the areas of data privacy (an issue that Google has been criticized over in the past).

In particular, Stallman highlighted the concern of legal ownership and access to data saying that “In the US, you even lose legal rights if you store your data in a company’s machines instead of your own. The police need to present you with a search warrant to get your data from you; but if they are stored in a company’s server, the police can get it without showing you anything.”

Stallman also suggested that the government might encourage users to adopt this model for easy and potentially warrant-free investigations performed without user knowledge. This strikes me as a bit paranoid, but the central question of whether fourth amendment protections would apply in cases where data is stored on Google’s server is a valid one – not to mention one that would be interesting to see played out in court, where it would surely end up before the Supreme Court eventually.

The other strong statement came from former Google employee and GMail creator Paul Buchheit (who went on to found FriendFeed after leaving Google. In a much less politically-oriented statement, Buchheit essentially agreed with many reviewers and commentators that Chrome OS was something to abandoned in today’s smartphone and tablet world by posting the following to his FriendFeed page:

I was thinking, “is this too obvious to even state?”, but then I see people taking Chrome OS seriously, and Google is even shipping devices for some reason. Chrome OS has no purpose that isn’t better served by Android (perhaps with a few mods to support a non-touch display).

What all of the criticism will ultimately mean for Chrome OS, the web apps store, and Google itself remains to be seen, though I do think that Buchheit made a really good point in that Google could eventually merge some Chrome OS features into Android. As to Stallman’s privacy concerns, they extend beyond Chrome OS (though Google model here does put them front and center). It’s definitely too early judge the merit of those concerns, but I do expect that they’ll show up in court cases and headlines eventually with an uncertain ultimate outcome.

What’s your opinion? Is Chrome OS pointless in today’s world? Does it encourage “careless computing” and put user privacy at risk? Are you considering buying a Chrome OS netbook next year? Give us your input in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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