Modern Software Experience

2009-07-08

Google Chrome OS

common misconceptions

It’s probably good to start discussion of Chrome OS by getting some common misconceptions out of the way.

Google Chrome

Google introduced Chrome, its desktop browser, less than a year ago. Many people mistook it for Google’s first browser, but it was Google’s second browser. Google was already offering the Android browser.

Chrome OS

Now that Google announced Chrome OS, many are mistaking Chrome OS for Google’s first operating system. Chrome OS is not Google’s first operating system. Not counting the customised operating system they use for their data centres, it is the second. Again, Android was first.

Windows competition

Chrome OS will not be the first Google operating system to compete with Windows, but the second. Android does not just compete with Windows Mobile, it is also being used for netbooks, and thus competes with Windows already.

It is perhaps good to stress that although Windows and Chrome OS do indeed compete with each other, that the nature of the competition should not be overblown. Google’s target for Chrome OS is not to offer a full replacement for Windows on desktop computers, but to provide something that is a good choice for netbooks.

few details

Google has released few details on Chrome OS yet. They’ve merely announced their intention to release Chrome OS. That announcement is all the information there is yet, but there are a few important details in there.

open source

We do know Chrome OS will be open source, just like Google Chrome, Android, Google Update and Google Gears are open source.

lightweight

We do know that Chrome OS will be lightweight. That means that it won’t be much more than an OS kernel; it will not offer many of the operating system features that Windows offers, but it will not need as much computing power either.

Google’s announcement puts it this way: We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds.
So perhaps it is best to call to call it an application launcher, with Chrome as its main, perhaps only application. That sure explains the name Chrome OS.

Google’s guiding idea clearly is that you don’t need much in a desktop operating system, if you have a browser already.

computing platform

Whereas Android is meant for mobile phones with some vendors using it in netbooks, Chrome OS is actually meant for netbooks, and will probably see a few vendors and users installing it on desktops, just because they can.

release date

Google has not committed to a firm release date, but their announcement indicates that the Chrome OS project will go open source this year and that netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of next year.

Chrome for Linux

This rough timetable has one practical implication that is easily to overlooked in the excitement about the OS as a whole; it implies that the Linux port of Google Chrome should be largely done before the end of the year. Embedded in this Chrome OS announcement is the promise that the Chrome for Linux should move out of preview and into beta real soon now.

design features

An OS for netbooks should be satisfied with limited computing power, and make the most of limited memory and battery life. That is why Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS.

design choices

Chrome will run on both x86 and ARM-based computer. Chrome OS will be built on top of a Linux kernel. Google will provide their own windowing system. Google has not provided any details of that yet, but it seems a safe bet that it will be at least somewhat similar to Android.

Just Work

The Google announcement contains some hyperbole that is easily misunderstood. It says we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work..

That things just work is a laudable ideal, but not a practical design assumption. It may sound counter-intuitive, but you make systems that seem to just work by preparing for every failure you can think of.

The way the Google announcement puts it, some readers may conclude that Google Chrome will not need updates and never suffer from any malware.

…Google foisted this annoying process on many Windows users to have all of us beta test what it is essentially a key component of Chrome OS without knowing that. Sneaky googloids.

Google Update

Every operating system needs updates. Do notice Google’s choice of words. Google is not saying you won’t need updates, Google is saying that users should not to deal with it. That is not the same statement.

This appear to be an indirect reference to the much-maligned Google Update process. So, it now seems that Google foisted this annoying process on many Windows users to have all of us beta test what it is essentially a key component of Chrome OS without knowing that. Sneaky googloids.

viri

Every platform needs protection against viri. In practice, switching away from the Internet Explorer browser and its many ActiveX issues to a real web browser that supports web standards solves half the problem for Windows users already.

Making an operating system on which users cannot install any native applications, only keep browser applications in a local cache, would prevent many malware scenarios too, but even such a system still needs protection.

Now, Google does not say there will be none, just that user’s will not have to deal with it. With nothing but web applications, a Google-controlled update process and perhaps a kill switch, that may actually be true. After all, when all your data is in the cloud, you won’t loose it by wiping your device.

Google Chrome

If you take another look at the features of Google Chrome, you see how well it fits in with Google’s plan for a netbook operating system. It supports web standards, has been designed to be safe and fast an generally get out of the way.

competition

Google Chrome OS is meant for use in netbooks; small, cheap, lightweight, portable computers. It is not meant to compete with full-featured desktop operating systems like Windows and Mac OS.

However, like Chrome, it is meant to make you less dependant on your desktop OS, and more comfortable using cloud applications, preferably Google Apps.

yet another operating system

Google makes it sound as if the web already is the only platform that matters: For application developers, the web is the platform.. That is easily misunderstood as if Google is making a general statement about the relevance of the web versus desktop applications.

Perhaps it is a misunderstanding Google likes, but in context, what Google really is saying is that application vendors need not worry about learning yet another platform now that Google is about to introduce yet another operating system.

Google seems to be implying that there will be no native Chrome OS-specific applications or gadgets, only web applications that run in Chrome. So, Google is practically confirming the idea that Chrome OS is just a launcher for Chrome, by clearly stating that application developers that want their application to run on Chrome OS just need to make a web application that runs on Chrome.

don’t think of Chrome OS as a Windows killer. Think of Chrome as an Internet Explorer killer.

why

Google is developing Chrome OS to increase its market share. By offering Chrome OS as a free OS for netbooks, Google ensures that many vendors and users will opt for Chrome OS and thus for Chrome as their browser, Google as their search engine and perhaps Google Apps as their productivity suite. The bottom line is that Google keeps getting richer by displaying AdWords.

don’t think of Chrome OS as a Windows killer. Think of Chrome as an Internet Explorer killer.

Chrome OS versus Windows

Chrome OS will have to compete with Windows 7, which Microsoft is optimising to run on low-cost hardware. Windows 7 is likely to be more CPU-intensive, but less network-intensive than Chrome OS. Windows will allow installation of local applications that work on local data, so you are not dependent on an Internet connection at all.

Thus, a choice between Windows 7 and Chrome OS will not so much be a choice on features or battery life, but between competing netbook philosophies; do you want the power and independence of desktop applications, or do you want the simplicity of a browser with your data in the cloud?

Google Gears

Chrome OS is designed for the always-connected world, but the world is not always connected. The Chrome browser has that issue covered. Chrome already supports HTML 5 and has Google gears built-in.

Google’s announcement does not mention it, but Google Gears is an essential part of Chrome OS. Both HTML 5 and Google Gears allow web applications to run disconnected with cached data. That is why Google Chrome has Google Gears built-in.

x86 versus ARM

If you do want a choice between these two, you’ll probably have to pick a an x86-based netbook. Microsoft is currently not planning to release a version of Windows for ARM processors (my, how times have changes since the Windows NT beta). If Microsoft does not change it mind on that, Google’s decision to make Chrome OS available for ARM-based computers may turn out to be a winning move.

If both approaches appeal to you, consider opting for a netbook with Windows 7 and then installing Google Chrome as your default browser. Once you find yourself using nothing but Google Chrome, you should probably switch to Chrome OS.

Chrome OS versus Android

Chrome OS will have some overlap with Android, but that is deliberate. Android was developed for phones and set-top boxes. Google does not put it this way, but Chrome OS can be seen as Google’s response to use of Android in netbooks (if it is a netbook OS you want, we’ll give you one). Using Android is okay, but Chrome OS was designed for it.

Chrome OS today

It is not hard to get some idea of what Chrome OS is like. The actual Chrome OS has merely been announced just now, yet most of its component are already here. You can experience that today.

Download and install Google Chrome, with built-in Google Gears, and complete with Google Update process, and make it your browser of choice. Use Google Mail for your email. Process your documents with Google Apps. And oh, make your phone calls with an Android phone.
If you are doing all of this already, Chrome OS is sure to look and feel quite familiar.

updates

2009-11-20 Chromium OS

Google has open sourced the Chromium OS project. See Chromium OS for details.

2011-07-16 Google Gears

Google ended the Gears project on 2011-03-1 to focus on HTML5 instead.

links

Chrome OS

Chrome OS related

Google Chrome Quadrology

more Google Chrome