No less than 92% of the world’s active computers may be running on Windows and macOS, but… that’s just it: that many active computers. There are still an awful lot of computers out there that are perfectly functional, in theory, but they are practically decommissioned because they feel slow and sluggish when used, because their operating system is not supported with security updates anymore (hello Windows XP and Windows 7) or because they simply stopped meeting the needs of their owners. The Web is full of articles, of course, about how one can install a number of different Linux distributions on computers such as these and use them properly again, but Linux isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and even that is overkill for the simple tasks those old computers will probably be used for.
So how about Chrome OS, then?
Google may be onto something here. The company has had great success in classrooms with its Chromebook products: these laptops are really affordable, fast in operation — Chrome OS is basically a small Linux kernel that’s been given a spartan desktop graphical user interface in order to launch Chrome and other simple apps — and work great with mainstream, everyday stuff, as most people do that online anyway. There were already a couple of roundabout ways to run Chrome OS on non-Chromebook computers based on other operating systems, but Google is now offering an easy, official way. It’s called Chrome OS Flex and it is just that: a version of Chrome OS designed to be used on PCs or Macs alongside their current operating system — or even replace that altogether.
Chrome OS Flex runs on computers with 4GB of RAM, 16GB of storage and Intel or AMD processors dating back to 2008 (or even earlier in some cases). MacBooks from early 2009, some common netbooks (remember those?), even Intel Compute Sticks can run this operating system with ease, which may be more than one can say for the OS such systems shipped, to begin with. Google maintains a Flex-certified devices list that will be regularly updated (the operating system itself is in a prerelease state after all), but people interested in using this OS can always install it on a USB stick and boot their old PCs from that in order to test its compatibility and performance on that specific hardware.
While many would argue that the lightest of Linux distributions could just as easily work with systems like the ones mentioned, there are certain advantages that come with the use of Chrome OS Flex. It is extremely easy to install, it will be regularly updated by Google in the same way Chrome OS is, its security is very strong and it offers all the popular Google apps and services out of the box, ready to be used online or offline depending on one’s needs. At least one of the features of the “regular” Chrome OS, the ability to run Android apps, will not be offered by Chrome OS Flex at first and there may be others like it. But this is, for all intents and purposes, the version of Chrome OS most likely to draw the attention of mainstream consumers for two obvious reasons: it’s free and it does not require the purchase of new hardware.
That is, of course, the whole point: Google needed an operating system for desktops and laptops in order to compete with Microsoft and Apple on that front too. An OS that could conceivably become the equivalent of Android in the smartphone world, encouraging even more consumers to use the company’s apps and services. That is why the company acquired Neverware back in 2020: it’s a small company that built CloudReady, an operating system based on the open-source Chromium OS, hoping to achieve something along those lines. What Google did was practically fold CloudReady into Chrome OS in order to offer Chrome OS Flex, extending the reach of the former through the latter.
While Chrome OS Flex is still in beta form — and Google itself suggests that it should not be installed on production machines, which is another way of saying that it’s not ready for anyone but the most tech-savvy among us — it will be quite interesting to see what consumers think of it when it’s eventually released as a full free Google product. On one hand, it’s not every day that we get something for nothing: in this case, a usable computer for general use out of a decommissioned one, without paying a dime. On the other hand, we do not really get something for nothing, as even anonymous data and usage patterns, let alone the often scary amount of data gathered by Google’s apps and services, are valuable (and consumers are more privacy-conscious than ever these days).
For people already invested in Google’s ecosystem, though, there’s no such worry, so Chrome OS Flex does make sense. Here’s hope that it delivers.