A few years ago, the mainstream world was quaking with news that Google was launching its own desktop operating system, Chrome OS. Imagine: Google was finally going up against the likes of Microsoft and Apple for control of users desktops! The idea behind Chrome OS was that Google would leverage its dominance of Web services to launch a cloud-based OS, meaning the computer itself could be a lightweight, inexpensive, highly portable device. It would gain its functionality by tapping into Web-based services like Gmail, Picasa, Google Docs and (of course) Google’s Chrome Web browser. Sure, Chrome OS might not be able to do much without an Internet connection — but these days, that’s true for most people too, right?

Not quite. Chrome OS hasn’t emerged as the threat to the likes of Windows and Mac OS X. In fact, it’s barely a footnote. Other than Chrome OS developers, virtually no consumers have set hands on Chrome OS, even though it’s been available for almost a year and a half.

Now, Google seems intent on giving Chrome OS a facelift, moving its interface closer to the world of traditional desktop operating systems rather than the one-app-at-a-time world of most mobile devices and tablets. Will the move give Chrome OS the flexibility to finally fit into users’ lives? Or is it a step backwards from the way the rest of the world is thinking?

It’s a small window after all

Chrome OS has primarily been defined by its simplicity as a browser-driven operating system. The original premise was that users would rely almost exclusively on Web-based applications — no software to download, no updates, no maintenance to perform. They could just keep signing in to apps that continually added features and new capabilities. As such, Chrome OS treats the entire display as a single browser window: With everything based on Web technologies, there’s no need for a desktop or anything but a browser, right? And without a traditional OS’s overhead, Chrome OS could be small and fast, with instant resumes and boot times under 10 seconds.

With Chrome OS 19, now available as a developer build, Google is changing that with an updated window manager and a redesigned UI. Suddenly, Chrome OS can support multiple, resizable windows. But that’s not all: Chrome OS 19 also picks up a desktop (complete with app icons) and a task bar. And Chrome OS 19 picks up other desktop OS standards like wallpaper. Suddenly Chrome OS is starting to look a lot like Windows 7 — at least on the surface.

The change is due to Aura, which aims to not only bring common desktop user interface elements to Chrome OS — it wants to make them sexy. Aura relies on hardware acceleration in graphics controllers to offer large-scale animations and transitions and a rich visual experience. In other words, Google wants Aura to make Chrome OS the sort of rich, media-deep experience people are used to getting on high-end tablets and typical notebook computers.

Aura, in turn, is the basis for Ash, or the Aura Shell. Ash relies on Aura to build the new interface elements in Chrome OS 19, including the desktop and window manager.

Google’s intent with Aura and Ash seems pretty clear: It wants to bring Chrome OS to additional platforms and form factors where jamming everything into a single screen-devouring window may not be the best choice. An obvious move here might be big-screen devices like televisions (although Google TV is based on Android), but other candidates include multiple-monitor setups, such as for presentations or work setups for “docked” notebooks. Mirroring across two displays might work for presenting charts and graphs, but it’s not really optimal for doing actual work or (say) reading email and using a Web app at the same time.

Chrome OS users who like the one-window-all-the-time approach don’t really have anything to fear: It’s very easy to keep the Chrome OS 19 world as one all-encompassing app.

Another goal of Aura is to enable Chrome OS to run on Windows. To do that, it needs cross-platform code and a UI layer that can scale to different hardware platforms, rather than the still-very-limited world of Chromebooks.

Circus maximized

Chrome’s move towards a traditional desktop computer interface seems contrarian in a world shifting fast towards a one-app-at-a-time mentality. Anyone who has used a smartphone or tablet device in the last three years knows mobile devices only put on app on screen at a time. Sure, other applications may be running in the background, but the device’s operating systems don’t let users put them side-by-side. The reasons are simple: Phones and tablets lack the screen real estate to meaningfully manage multiple apps, and permitting side-by-side application usage generates a myriad of unpredictable usage situations that could wreak havoc for operating systems — not to mention battery life. If users need to do two things at once — like, check email and Twitter at the same time — well, that sounds like a problem that presents a wonderful third-party app opportunity! Users can open their wallets and but a new app to do that. It’s not something the operating systems will try to address.

The sad reality is that the ability to run apps side-by-side (or one on top of the other) has largely been lost on the majority of computer users for nearly two decades. Most folks use Windows, but they’ve whittled it down their everyday usage to the singular form: window. They may run multiple apps, but they run them all maximized, full screen, so all they can see at any given moment is Outlook, or Word, or Excel, or Firefox, or (yup) even IM clients or Solitaire. Dealing with multiple windows at the same time is just too confusing, so users maximize everything and switch between applications modally. They may be running multiple apps, but effectively they’re only using one at a time. Using multiple windows — or, heaven forfend, multiple windows per application — has drifted off to the realm of power-user techniques.

It’s not just smartphones and tablets. With Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple introduced a full screen mode for applications so users don’t have to be troubled with the notion of more than one program running at the same time — it’s part of Apple’s effort to bring technologies promulgated in iOS “back to the Mac.”

What’s more, Microsoft will be waving goodbye to multiple windows in Windows 8, what’s sure to be the 800-pound gorilla of desktop operating world. Sure, Windows 8 will still feature a traditional Windows desktop for folks who are used to it, but the new Metro-style interface will be limited to one app at at time for folks with a display smaller than 1,366 by 768 pixels. Running it at that resolution or higher will allow you to place two (and only two) apps side-by-side using Metro’s “snap” feature. One of those apps can be the traditional Windows desktop (making a Metro app rather like a sidebar), at least on Intel-based systems, but there’s no layering. Microsoft is making it clear that Metro is the future, and traditional desktop apps — and their annoying multiple window capability — are now considered legacy technology.

Chromebooks

Right now, Chrome OS is limited to Chromebooks — which so far have failed to fly off shelves and into consumers’ hands. Although Acer and Samsung cut prices on their Chromebooks before the holidays and a few organizations (like libraries) have tentatively embraced them, Chromebooks remain a rarity on the street. Google has never released sales figures for Chromebooks, but despite big talk about lots of hardware partners itching to jump on the platform, only Acer and Samsung have come out with devices. (Some reports have a beleaguered Sony perhaps preparing a Chromebook.) Last November, DigiTimes reported Acer had sold only 5,000 Chromebooks in five months — and Samsung’s sales were even lower.

Adding support for a traditional desktop and multiple windows may increase the appeal of Chromebooks for buyers who don’t know what to do without a traditional desktop interface, or those who might consider a Chromebook over a Windows-based ultraportable or netbook. However, that market is already dwindling — netbook sales have declined sharply as tablets like the iPad have taken off. Most consumers looking for a simple notebook are often the same folks who run everything maximized anyway. Multiple windows will not be a selling factor, and the cognitive hurdle of a a Web-dependent notebook will still be a major issue.

Existing Chromebook owners may also find they’re left out: Google is not supporting its original CR-48 Chromebook (which debuted at the end of 2010) with Chrome OS 19. It can’t meet Aura’s requirements for hardware-accelerated graphics. Chrome OS 19 will run on the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 and Acer AC 700 Chromebook. Google says it plans to bring the CR-48 “back onto the release train” sometime after Chrome OS 19, and will continue to push security and other updates to the original Chromebooks as needed.

Where is Chrome OS going?

The fundamental question facing Google’s Chrome OS — and Chromebooks — is whether mainstream computer users are ready for a purely Web- and cloud-based computer. Apple and Google are seeing tremendous adoption rates for iOS and Android, and it’s easy to argue that those devices are extremely dependent on the Web and cloud services.

However, part of the appeal of downloadable, standalone apps is that many of them function in whole (or in part) without any connectivity at all. Users can still compose email, manage their photo albums, enjoy music and video, play games, and much more, all without Internet connectivity.

With a Chromebook, offline users are essentially restricted to watered-down offline versions of Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs available from the Chrome Web Store. (Did you know there was a Chrome store? It’s not in Google Play.) Without connectivity, Chromebooks aren’t very useful.

Perhaps it’s no surprise I’ve met exactly two Chromebook owners who weren’t Google employees. Who are they? University students angling to (guess what?) get jobs at Google.