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A user came into my computer repair shop with an Acer laptop that happened to be a Google Chromebook. This laptop was dead. It simply doesn’t work. The hard drive works, and under Linux I can mount the filesystems on the hard drive, but the rest of the laptop is shot. We wanted to move the user’s drive to an external hard drive enclosure so that he could at least retrieve his family photos and other data stored on the computer. Obviously, the data would need to be copied off of the Linux filesystems and the drive reformatted to Windows’ NTFS so that it could be read on a Windows PC, and then the data would be copied onto the newly formatted hard drive. The user gets an external hard drive plus all his data, and everyone is happy.

Except for one tiny little problem.

Google Chromebooks encrypt all of the user’s data.

With a key stored in the computer’s Trusted Platform Module (TPM).

If the computer was stolen by someone, this would be a good thing, because that someone wouldn’t have access to the user’s private files. That’s what encryption is supposed to be for, after all…but this laptop wasn’t stolen. The owner had it in his possession, knew the login password, and that should mean that the owner can get into the computer and retrieve his data.

Except the password for that data is stored away in a chip that won’t hand it out unless the computer works and Google’s Chrome OS is what asks for it.

Where does that leave my customer? Simple! With absolutely nothing. A failure of the computer in this case has become equivalent to a total hard drive failure. All of his data is lost forever. There is simply no way I can retrieve it for him without the encryption key locked away in a chip I can’t extract it from. Because the encryption key is not available to the user, the user can’t give it to me to decrypt his information.

Thus, you simply don’t own your own data when it’s on a Chromebook. The maker of the computer and the writer of the operating system do. Please don’t waste your money on a Chromebook…but if you do, back up your stuff.

(To a real external hard drive, not “the cloud.”)

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As you know, Google Chromebooks are out, and Google advertises their existence underneath the search box on the Google home page.  However, I tried typing out a search, without quotes, for “Chromebook sucks” and was greeted with nothing but search results were “review(s)” was substituted for the term “sucks.”

Go to Google and try it yourself.  I’ll still be here when you get back.

To get actual results for “Chromebook sucks” you must enclose the words in double quotes instead.  I’m willing to give Google somewhat of the benefit of the doubt here, because usually someone who types “sucks” after something is looking for reviews about that something, and primarily negative ones, so the substitution may make sense in that regard; however, the fact that it happens when you’re trying to find negative information about a Google product presents a conflict of interest, in my opinion, and I think that they shouldn’t “help steer you in the right direction” when it’s something that they are selling and you happen to be using the search engine they also control to see what the downsides of the pitched product may be.

If you work for Google and know the reason this works the way it does, feel free to comment!

Ah, yes, the much-speculated Google Operating System.  Rumors about a possible OS from Google have been floating about for years now, and it seems that Google has finally delivered the cornucopia of computing goodness to your door.  Coming soon to a netbook near you:  Google’s new operating system.  The news is practically flooded with articles about why Google’s fancy new OS is so important and interesting.

I’m here to tell you why it sucks, and why it isn’t really that special at all.

First and foremost, Chrome OS is based on Linux, and Linux has already been out for a long time, with Ubuntu being the most well-known and possibly the most available distribution.  What makes Chrome OS different from any other Linux distro?  It’s Linux with yet another face, but under the hood it still shares far too much with Linux to be considered its own “operating system.”  (Watch for my next post to clarify the difference between a true operating system and what is merely labeled an OS but in fact is more of a “software environment.”)  Chrome OS = Linux with another pretty face.  End of story.  If you want Linux, download Ubuntu or Debian or Fedora or ArchLinux.  At least they offer up real applications and a fully featured environment…

Second, Chrome OS suffers from the most serious problem that other “cloud-centric” distributions of Linux are plagued with: the all-too-often wrong assumption that the computer will be connected to the Internet most of the time.  The OS is centered around the Chrome browser and the primary apps are online apps, with support for traditional offline apps likely to be minimal.  Case in point: gOS, which came with my Sylvania G netbook.  The first thing I did was toss out gOS and install something else–anything else— because it was such a nuisance.  gOS comes with icons for OpenOffice.org and Firefox, and that’s really about it.  Every other “application” seemed to be Internet-enabled.  Most of the “applications” were Google, Blogger, Facebook, MySpace, Google Docs, and other garbage that requires a (fast) Internet connection to work.  What good is having an ultraportable laptop if you need an Internet connection to use 90% of its functionality?  That’s one reason I documented some of the things you can do to get more out of the G netbook, because it actually comes with the majority of the standard GNOME environment, which includes a significant number of games, control panels, applications, and other tools…none of which has an icon in the default installation at all!  Chrome OS is doomed to suffer the same fate, because it is nothing more than “gOS reloaded” for all intents and purposes.

FEW PEOPLE WANT TO BE TETHERED TO THE INTERNET WITH THEIR LAPTOPS AT ALL TIMES.  LEARN THIS, GENIUSES: INTERNET APPLICATIONS SUCK.

Which brings us to my third point:  INTERNET APPLICATIONS SUCK. The ones that don’t suck aren’t Internet applications at all.  I don’t know anyone that uses Google Docs, and Google Docs is no replacement for an installation of OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Office.  One might be tempted to counter with a mention of the heavily-used Google SketchUp or Google Earth, but the difference is that those are true applications which just happen to be Internet-enabled or come from a site on the Internet.  Google Earth uses data pulled from the Internet, and Google Earth totally rocks.  Google Docs, though, is sparse on features and not very compatible with other office applications.  It is not a viable replacement for a real office package for most people, and it feels like “Microsoft Works lite” in general.  Looking beyond Google, we see sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and other “social networking” sites taking longer and longer to load, being plagued by excessive use of widgets, and other serious issues.  Contrast this with traditional instant messenger applications and even the ever-hated AOL, which may not be the smallest programs in existence, but provide much better performance, a larger feature set, and better integration with other programs.  Internet applications are limited in their implementation and capabilities, as well as by the lack of proper support for industry standards that have been around for a long time now.

What’s very depressing is that I actually see many reputable sites hyping Chrome OS and discussing whether or not it threatens Windows, Linux, Mac OS, or even embedded operating systems.  Chrome OS is nothing more than a Linux distribution with a stupid idea behind it, and Google has spent considerable time and money on dumber things (can you say YouTube?)  This isn’t like Android, which opened up options in the mobile phone market considerably.  This is something targeted at machines that can already do more than Chrome OS can do.

In short, Google Chrome OS is obsolete before it ever rolls out.  Apparently, I’m not exactly alone in my opinions, and this article sums it all up quite nicely.

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