The Chromebook is ready for the Web, but is the Web ready for the Chromebook? This is the fundamental question you must ask yourself before deciding to fork over $400 to $500 dollars for one of the new Google Chrome-powered notebook computers, available as of today. The Chromebook, with initial hardware coming from manufacturers like Samsung and Acer, is a vision of the future of computing where everything is done online, in a Web browser. The operating system it runs has no desktop, no way to install apps to a hard drive and no local folders to store all your personal files. It is a Web browser, and just a Web browser.

And it is pure Google.

Samsung's Chromebook: Google's Vision of the Future

The most remarkable thing about the Chromebook is not a sum of its parts, its specs, the hardware or even the features of the Chrome browser itself. It's the vision. For Google, the future of computing is all Web, or, in current parlance, it's all "cloud." In Google's vision, an "app" runs in the Web browser, which, in this case, means Google's browser, Chrome.

...Vs. Apple's Vision with iCloud

For Google, Chrome OS appears, at first glance, to be quite a different vision from Apple's new offering called iCloud. With iCloud, Apple has released its interpretation of what Microsoft has been promising for years: "software plus services," a term that refers to the way cloud computing is used to augment and enhance desktop or native software, as opposed to fully replacing it.

In a recent op-ed on BusinessInsider, writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry calls iCloud a "humiliation" for Microsoft, as Apple took the same concept Microsoft had in place and executed it properly. That opinion is probably a little premature - Apple failed once with MobileMe, an expensive online service that never gained traction among Apple's legion of fans, even earning a mea culpa from Steve Jobs himself this month. And it has also yet to be seen how robust and stable iCloud will be when so many of Apple's users are upgraded by way of iOS 5, the company's new mobile operating system. And it's unclear if iCloud might grow beyond what we've seen so far - there are rumors that it, too, will include Web applications in the future to complement the current strategy.

Finally, there's the argument that Apple's vision and Google's are not so different in the sense that "it's all software," as Apple insider John Gruber puts it. He recently argued that while Google uses client-side applications written in JavaScript to deliver rich Web apps like Gmail, Apple uses native code (Cocoa and Cocoa Touch) on iOS devices and Macs. But later he clarified there is a difference - one vision can reach many via the Web (Google users) while others reach a different audience - those with a device in hand (Apple users).

Chromebook, the Concept PC

However, as far as visions go, Apple's makes sense for where we are now. Cloud computing can make native software better, but the cloud replacing all your software isn't quite "there" yet. It's notable that both tech giants Microsoft and Apple share the former belief about the cloud, while Google thinks otherwise, at least when it comes to the Chromebook.

Google, however, unlike Apple and Microsoft, doesn't need to build a profitable business off its cloud computing vision in this particular case.  Billions of dollars in revenue from search advertising gives the company room to experiment with far-off lofty ideas like a Chromebook computer that is "all Web."

We wonder, though, does the everyday consumer understand that for $400-$500 they're being sold a prototype OS ? And is this a future a consumer should embrace today?

The Cloud is Not Ready...Yet

Samsung's Chromebook, which we've been fortunate enough to test this week, comes in two versions: Wi-Fi only ($429) and 3G ($499).  The 3G version also comes with 100 MB of free data per month from Verizon for two years. For those in need of more than that, a 1 GB monthly data plan costs $20, 3 GB is  $35 and 5 GB is $50. All are contract-free. For occasional use, Verizon has a one-day $10 unlimited option, available as needed.

As for the hardware, the Chromebook is a decent enough, although slightly under-powered notebook computer, according to the gadget reviewers. (We don't explicitly review gadgets here, so feel free to follow that link for several hands-on reviews of the hardware).

As a secondary machine, if not for the price - as expensive as a low-end Windows PC - it may be worth it. But as a primary PC? We're not convinced.

Samsung told us it has no plans to lower the price anytime soon, making an odd choice to place this experimental concept device alongside machines capable of running the apps consumers still demand: desktop software programs that include everything from Twitter clients to Microsoft Office.

Desktop Apps? You Don't Need No Stinking Desktop Apps! (Except, of Course, When You Do)

Desktop apps? You don't need 'em, Google would say: you can run all the apps you need right in the browser, the Google Chrome browser, which gives the notebook its name. For example, the Google Apps suite, and in particular, the Google Docs product, is now a feature-rich, if somewhat more basic version of its Microsoft counterpart, Office. And consumers have already become accustomed to accessing both email and calendars online, which Google delivers via Gmail and Google Calendar. LIke most Google products, these services are at the very least "good enough" for most consumers, if not better due to their online nature. As online apps, you can access them anywhere, collaborate in real-time with colleagues, not worry about backups, archive and storage space issues.

The "Offline" Web

But what about when there is no Web? This is, sadly, still a very real concern for many. To address this, Google plans to introduce an offline mode to its mobile applications sometime this summer, which will allow you to work in Gmail, Google Docs and your calendar offline. As to how much you'll actually be able to do in this reduced functionality mode remains to be seen.

As for other applications, including social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, photo-sharing sites, online news outlets, YouTube and other video-sharing portals and more, there's no way to know if or when these services will ever offer some sort of offline functionality. And even with an affordable 3G data plan, there are still a number of places the Internet has yet to penetrate, including underground subways, many interior spaces, plus some buses, trains and planes. There are also some remote areas where decent Internet access or cellular coverage doesn't exist.

When the Web Falls Short

Then there are the other tools we've come to rely on as part of our computing experience, notably Skype, which for many is a can't-live-without-it application. Considering that Skype was recently acquired by Microsoft, the idea of a Google Chrome Web app version of the software sold in Google's Chrome web store seems a little far-fetched for now. While eventually Microsoft will have to meet the needs of the cloud-only market, it's far from a large enough space to be of concern at present. Versions that run on Mac, Windows, Linux and mobile will suffice.

There are also the esoteric tools that individuals rely on to get their jobs done every day. For me, I'd loathe to give up my preferred desktop blog editing software, despite the online options for blogging from the cloud. For Joanna Stern of This is My Next..., it was the insufficient capabilities of Picnik, the online photo editing software which failed to handle advanced tasks she performs daily, like the addition of a watermark to photos, among other things. For Adrian Covert of Gizmodo, the machine wasn't able to properly handle HD video or 3D games.  While the former complaint (Stern's) is more of a drawback to the "lightness" of today's online software, the latter (Covert's) is mainly a hardware issue.

Combined, what it means is that this new Samsung Chromebook is only an adequate interpretation of Google's vision. It's neither powerful enough to run the Web the way a modern notebook computer can nor does it have a rich enough lineup of applications to replace everything you love about running a "real" operating system. And at a bulky 3.3 pounds, it's certainly heavier than what you would imagine a "Web-only" machine to be.

It's Not All Bad...

That said, despite these complaints, I've grown somewhat attached to this halfway-there machine. I've reached for it in lieu of the iPad in the living room, knowing it will instantly be on as soon as I lift the lid. Its chicklet-style keyboard is comfortable to use coming from the Macbook, and Chrome, synced with my Google account, brings my bookmarks, extensions, themes, passwords, autofill data (sans credit card info) and apps to the new machine, which makes for a familiar experience from one computer to the next.

I can print via Cloud Print, a service that connects printers to the Internet for access from anywhere, and there's no need to worry with software updates - they'll come automatically, over the Web. Nor do I have to worry with security issues. While nothing is 100% secure, the Chromebook arguably more secure than Windows, which would have cost just as much, if not more, depending on specs.

Maybe the Chromebook's real appeal is the comfort factor. I don't have to learn to type on a touchscreen, and I use the same browser I know from my Mac. All my stuff is there. That works for me, at least for now. However, while I can't recommend that anyone but the most casual of computing users replace a current notebook computer with a Chromebook just yet, as a secondary option for lighter use, it's not a bad choice.