Daniel Eran Dilger
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Google outlines Chrome OS plans for netbooks

Chrome OS

Prince McLean, AppleInsider

Google hosted a technical introduction to its new Chrome OS today, which it expects to officially launch on new netbooks by the end of 2010.

Google outlines Chrome OS plans for netbooks.
First unveiled as a initiative in July, Google’s Chrome OS was broadly outlined to be a fast launching, secure, stripped down operating system aimed at replacing Windows on netbooks.

The web browser as an operating system

Dashing any hopes that Chrome OS would become a sophisticated operating system to directly rival Mac OS X and Windows 7, Google outlined today that its Chrome OS will simply be its Chrome browser optimized to run on a specialized Linux kernel. All apps on the new systems will be web applications launched within their own sandbox. There will be no native apps.

Google first focused attention on the traction it has gained with its Chrome web browser, noting that the fast new WebKit browser recent exceeded 40 million users worldwide. Net Applications says Chrome grabbed a 3.8% share of global browser use in October, establishing it solidly in fourth place behind Safari, Firefox and the Internet Explorer after just short of a year of availability.

The company says it will release an official Mac version of the Chrome browser by the end of this year, and is working on a Linux version that will serve as the foundation of the Chrome OS. Essentially, the “new OS” will be the Chrome browser running on a stripped down Linux core.

Similar to Android, which is also hosted on the Linux kernel, the platform itself will not be the typical Linux GNOME/KDE X11 desktop but rather the Chrome browser itself. While Android is primarily a modified mobile Java platform, Chrome OS will be a web platform based on HTML5.

The result will be a broad platform for HTML5 web apps that can run on Windows PCs, Macs, iPhones and other smartphones with HTML5 savvy browsers, as well as new dedicated hardware devices running the Chrome OS. Google said it has been working hard on making web apps work as well as native apps, with access to system resources such as the GPU for fast graphics.

Chrome OS

Introduction to Chrome OS

In its event, Google focused on speed, simplicity and security as core features of the Chrome OS plan. “We want Chrome OS to be blazingly fast, basically instant-on,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s VP of Product Management.

“In Chrome OS, every application is a web application,” Pichai said. “There are no native applications. That gives us simplicity. It’s just a browser with a few modifications. And all data in Chrome OS is in the cloud.

”This is key, we want all of personal computing to work this way. If you lose your machine, you just get a new one, and it works. With security, because everything is a web app, we can do different things. No system is ever fully secure. With Chrome OS there’s no user install binaries, so we can see bad things easier. We run completely inside the browser security model.“

From startup, Google demonstrated Chrome OS booting to its login screen in 7 seconds, with another three seconds to load a web application. And while the user interface is still in flux, Google is working to keep things simple by retaining most of the look and feel of Chrome browser, adding only ”panels“ as lightweight windows that don’t move, useful for things like chat buddy lists and media playback.

Pichai referred to Microsoft’s web based Office as the killer app for Chrome OS, eliciting laughs from the audience. He also demonstrated YouTube playback and viewing graphics and PDFs within browser tabs.

Inside the Chrome OS

Matthew Papakipos, the engineering director for Chrome OS, took the stage next to present the new operating system’s technical side. ”We want this to feel much more like a television than a computer,“ he said, noting that Chrome OS appliances will all be based on solid-state storage (like the iPhone) rather than using mechanical hard disks (like many more conventional netbooks currently do).

Papakipos said that the Chrome OS gains boot speed by cutting out lots of the conventional startup process common to PCs, including a hardware search for available drives and other devices, and the initiation of background services. The system launches from a read only boot partition with ”Verified Boot,“ and automatically updates itself with any available security patches.

This automatic installation of web-based software is similar to Palm’s webOS and updates for Windows that occur by default, and a marked departure from systems that allow the user to exercise control over when and how their software is updated, as Apple does on the Mac and iPhone. Google has already raised some eyebrows by automatically loading updates for desktop PC software without telling the user, a practice that it has since backpedaled on in response to user complaints.

Individual web apps are handled as sandboxed applications, with each running in its own process unique to its browser tab. User data is all stored encrypted, so if the device is lost or stolen it can’t be easily recovered. All data is also synced to the cloud, so it can be resynced to a new machine if the system itself is ever irretrievably lost.

Pichai returned to the stage to wrap up that Google will be working with hardware makers to develop new devices capable of running the Chrome OS, and noted that it will not be possible for existing Linux or Windows netback users to upgrade to the new OS; it will only be made available on new hardware.

He also noted that Google plans to back ”slightly larger netbooks with full sized keyboards and big trackpads“ rather than the types of machines currently available.

The potential impact of Chrome OS

On a conceptual level, the Chrome OS works a lot like the iPhone: rather than trying to be a conventional, general purpose PC, it supplies a stripped down experience on tightly customized hardware. Unlike the iPhone, which uses a mobile-optimized version of Apple’s desktop Mac OS X, Google is floating Chrome OS as a platform for running web applications exclusively.

This makes Chrome OS more like Adobe’s Flash Lite, albeit based on HTML5 rather than Flash. Like Flash, Google will have to figure out how to translate the desktop browser experience into mobile devices. Web content is already largely targeted to users with desktop-sized displays, so advancing either Flash or HTML5 on the desktop and mobile devices at the same time is a challenge.

Apple’s solution to this quandary on the iPhone was to develop a browser experience that made desktop-centric content readily viewable, while also offering an iPhone-optimized web experience for developers who wanted to target the iPhone directly. While web access was and is critically important to the success of the iPhone, Apple has gained even more attention for its native SDK, which allows developers to sell self contained apps to iPhone users independent from the web browser.

Apple has largely ignored the conventional netbook market, leaving it to PC makers. Microsoft first embraced netbooks with a low cost version of Windows XP designed to suffocate the netbook market’s initial rapid adoption of Linux. However, after witnessing the cannibalization of low end Windows PCs and notebooks by cheap netbooks, Microsoft outlined plans this summer to raise netbook prices using Windows 7.

A new low-cost push by Google to introduce another wave of even cheaper, stripped down devices running its web-centric, Linux-based operating system next year will likely sabotage Microsoft’s efforts ”readjust those prices north“ as Steve Ballmer hoped. Instead, the mass market for low end devices will be dragged down further, forcing Microsoft to consider abandoning embedded web-based devices along with its music player and smartphone product lines being crushed by Apple’s iPod and iPhone.

The remaining question is how will Chrome OS devices impact mainstream desktop PCs and Macs. Apple has already differentiated its Mac lineup to focus on iLife and Pro Apps that can’t really be delivered using web apps. This has enabled the company to remain profitable despite the cutthroat pricing competition among PC makers on the low end.

However, for the vast majority of Windows PCs being used primarily to browse the web, access email, edit documents and other tasks that are already possible and popular to do via web apps, the arrival of Google’s Chrome OS could result in a major makeover of the PC market.

This all happened before

This isn’t the first time Microsoft’s dominant position has been threatened by stripped down devices. Sun attempted to positioned Java-based terminals against Windows PCs in the late 90s, along with a wave of other efforts to deliver thin clients or ”NCs“ (network computers) as cloud-centric alternatives to the conventional desktop PC.

Apple’s iMac was birthed from an effort within the company to create an NC, and it became one of the few non-Windows PCs to ever gain traction. Other attempts include 3Com’s QNX-based Audrey, a web browsing appliance designed to sync up to the company’s Palm OS devices, and Be Inc.’s effort to turn its BeOS into an internet appliance, which it licensed to Sony for use in the eVilla in 2001.

Customers didn’t get enthused about web-only appliances a decade ago, but things might change with Google’s efforts to push HTML5 as a strong foundation for more functional web apps. Today’s users are familiar with Google’s Gmail, Gtalk, Docs, and other web-based apps, so floating new hardware capable of running these kinds of tools may be far more successful than previous attempts.

Google has also gained the interest of PC hardware makers with Android, enabling it to muscle into what has long been turf controlled by Microsoft. By offering developers a free alternative to Windows licensing, Google will likely find a variety of hardware makers interested in pursing Chrome OS devices.

One aspect of its assault on Windows and Windows Mobile that Google has been pushing is the idea of sharing its ad revenues with hardware licensees when they agree to its terms for bundling Google’s ad-supported apps, enabling it to offer its core operating system software for ”less than free.“

Without Google’s massive leverage in web advertising and paid search, Microsoft won’t be able match Google’s ”less than free“ terms. Whether that will result in a complete restructuring of the PC market remains to be seen, but that question should get answered over the next two years.

  • http://www.transchristians.org Ephilei


    I didn’t believe your long held prediction that Linux would take over the basic PC market while Apple kept the premium market, but I do now. Chrome (and probably some similar followers) will win over the netbook market by huge margins and the netbook market will continue to boom. These $300 Chrome netbooks will run faster than $700 Windows laptops. I don’t think Windows will die, but it will mainly be relegated to the $500-$900 niche (too cheap for a Mac but wanting traditional applications). But if Apple ever decides to sell a mid level laptop, they’re all but done.

    Question for Daniel: iTunes can’t run on Chrome. The only reason I wouldn’t recommend Chrome OS for some friends are those with iPods who’d be stuck. Seeing as Chrome doesn’t compete with Macs at all, do you see them creating a web-iTunes? A free (sproutcore?) webapp that hosts your media content and syncs with iStuff via browser-to-hardware APIs that are in the process of standardization.

  • Stephen

    The shape of the future does appear to be crystalising: Linux OS based Google at the lower end (but inexorably eating its way up the food chain) supported by cloud storage; dedicated gaming appliances (PS3 etc); Apple owning the mobile appliance market; Apple leveraging iTunes and its mobile market power to take ever larger chunks of the high end desktop market while at the same time gaining momentum as more software developers start targeting OSX.

    However it pans out, I’m not seeing much of a role for MS.

    I think Apple has an opportunity to lock in its ascendancy by making iTunes OS agnostic and that means that it will have to become browser-based. I’d also try to make iTunes a platform from which non-osx software can be easily served – I’m thinking something analogous to a next-gen linux distro repository system, expanded to serve multiple OS’s and commercial software.

    Apple should also revamp Me, make it marginal cost so that people will use it automatically – gmail like.

  • http://crankyoldnutcase.blogspot.com/ The Mad Hatter

    Google wants to sell ads. This is a way to sell ads. I’m not sure how much value it will deliver to the end user, but having Google pay the hardware OEMS for click throughs could change the PC market completely.

    Me, I wouldn’t buy one of these. I work away from an internet connection too often, I need my local apps. But for a lot of people, this might be the solution they need, at a price they can afford.

    Also note that Google is talking about larger screens and keyboards. I guess that Microsoft’s attempt to redefine the Netbook as something so small it’s practically useless is also doomed to fail.

  • reddot

    Chrome OS sounds a lot like the recently released litl (http://www.litl.com/), which is a bit more ambitious in how it reimagines the GUI paradigm. While it also uses what is basically atom netbook hardware, litl did some custom design work which is very interesting. Plus, it’s available right now, not a year from now. Although the price is higher than is likely for the Chrome OS netbooks at $700.

  • bchristian

    Another aspect of the Chrome OS story would have to be support of ARM architecture right off the bat. It seems that this in addition to SSD and the super speedy nature of the new OS would enable cheap processors to be used while maintaining the user experience that we are used to today. Thus bringing the elusive $100 computer?

  • ChuckO

    A lot of interesting implications here. A lot of assumptions get inverted. It seems like hard drive size starts to take back seat to RAM in a browser based world like this unless html 5’s offline needs thwarts that assumption. It also makes me wonder how various apps would work in an html 5 world. If I have thousands of photos on a cloud based service do they all end up saved on my hard drive in case I need to access them offline. This same question is probably even more pertinent in imagining a web based iTunes. How does Google manage peoples expectations in regard to these issues? That sounds pretty ugly in terms of delivering an appliance like device to non-tech people with these weird online/offline issues. This is probably why no one’s tried it yet. Sounds like a lot of significant problems to overcome.

  • bchristian

    Seems like Google has already put forth their idea of music in cloud-world: LaLa. Access your music through the internet when you are connected and hook up an external storage device(?) to download the song to have a DRM-free copy locally.

  • ChuckO

    I’ll have to try LaLa. I’ve seen it embedded onsites but haven’t taken a good look at it.

    There just seems like there’s a lot of potential pain to adopting this sort of paradigm for the average user. It seems like it would take a while for non-Google services to get html5 optimized. How much work is Photobucket going do to be Chrome OS ready before they know if these things are going to sell and be worth the effort.

    Doing this sort of approach seems like it would be much more in Apple’s philosopher/artist/design wheelhouse than in Google’s hamfisted engineer/geek get something more or less working out there fast way of working but I suspect Apple would see the chicken\egg problems in getting people to move in this direction.

    I think it’s similar to why Apple hasn’t done more with AppleTV they’re stymied by the partners and the various aspects of going forward that are out of Apple’s hands haven’t coalesced yet. I think Chrome OS will be similar experience for Google.

  • http://www.adviespraktijk.info Berend Schotanus

    “Google focused on speed, simplicity and security “

    Are we going towards cloud computing? I feel reluctant for several reasons and yes, speed, simplicity and security are are amongst them so they are not completely foolish at Mountain View. But the best way in assessing the chances of cloud computing right be to look at what I’m doing right now. I am commenting a blog (WordPress I assume) in a Safari browser. God knows where the harddisk is located that contains the actual information. Daniel might own a typewriter to produce his articles – or maybe he secretly maintains a folder of Word files on his PC – but chances are the article above has been directly edited in WordPress, a task that would be perfectly suited for Chrome OS. So, while for some reason still opposing the concept, we inevitably already live in the cloud.

    Overseeing the consequences, I think, is intellectually challenging. The idea of putting all of my Office documents on a Google server in Mountain View is creepy to me, like I am voluntarily surrendering to Big Brother. Running WordPress feels more comfortable when I can choose where it is hosted and what security measures apply. Maybe I trust my local ISP (maybe not), maybe I want to pay Amazon, maybe I can hide my own Mac mini server in my own private closet. I wouldn’t trust any free service that somehow has to monetize my confidentialities…

    So yes, great news from Google, and yes, Microsoft is not likely to survive and still… I need some moments to digest.

  • bchristian

    Google’s work in their web apps and the resulting ripple effect of competition in rich web experiences has made this perfect for a companion PC. The ecosystem will have to be fleshed out for it to be feasible as a primary computing platform, and it will depend greatly on external partners. The biggest advantage Google has though is its adherence and push for standards. In this case the engineer/geek approach can win because there is no battle for winning proprietary formula. Chrome OS will support Flash, which is the biggest “competitor” to HTML5 so it gets around that fight without pulling an iPhone.

    Chrome OS will feed off and build on a momentum of these rich web experiences which are developing due to external market conditions, rather than trying to spark development ala iPhone.

    Bottom Line: Google’s business model makes Chrome OS a win-win no matter how it is received in the market. It is a pretty easy assumption that it will, at the very least, continue to push personal computing into the cloud, thus sending more eyeballs to the internet and to Google’s advertising.

  • ChuckO

    ChromeOS is feeling more and more like the Apple tablet to me the more I think about it. They both have a lot of, though very different, negatives about them. I think they’re both far from sure fire winners.

  • Stephen

    Its fascinating – google and apple are the game changers, MS is merely a reactor.

    On second thoughts, MS is barely reactor. All its responses have been half-hearted because all strategic responses only offer profits in the long term while immediately hurting known revenue streams – especially MS-Office revenue.

    In fact, MS barely factors in to a world of razor thing hardware margins and ubiquitous high speed web.

  • Dorotea

    ChromeOS is fine if all you want is appliance for the internet. I don’t want to use the “cloud” for my data. And I want my data with me…. so no go.

    But I have to admit its kinda cool

  • drheywood

    I’m not sure I believe in cloud computing, not in the long run. It makes sense now when the majority of users are content consumer “drones” that click around in search for some stimulation and interaction.

    But what seems to happend when people start to understand computers and get good at them, is that they start producing. For a content creator, cloud computing will always be like that preloaded BASIC, while a real computer is like Assembler and C.

    Another thing, that scares me, is that ChromeOS takes a step towards separating the user from the CPU. We’re slowly loosing the power over our own CPUs. I fear that it will be too late when we realize that whoever controls the CPU controls everything. Watch it happend.

  • http://blog.cytv.com cy_starkman

    Google = Ads
    Chrome OS = More Ads

    Doesn’t matter if you lose your computer you can always get more ads.

    On a different tangent.

    Anyone else see a striking resemblance to Windows 3.xx

  • FreeRange

    The one key driver for Google’s and Apple’s success in this arena is the ubiquity and ever increasing speeds of mobile data networks which makes the chances for success much greater than past efforts. Also, even though programs like GoogleDocs are in the cloud, through Google Gears you have access to the same docs for creating and editing when offline, and auto syncing when you go back online making cloud computing much more attractive.

  • http://crankyoldnutcase.blogspot.com/ The Mad Hatter

    I think that this will work to some extent. A lot of people don’t need a killer machine. If you aren’t doing graphics, video, gaming, or other CPU/GPU intensive tasks, Chrome will do the job.

    I know a lot of people for who this wouldn’t work. But let’s face it. I’m a geek. Most of the people I know are really into computers, and use them for producing TV shows, producing music videos and recordings, graphics editing, etc. I don’t think that the average person is going to be doing that much CPU/GPU intensive work.

    And that’s the key. Roughly Drafted readers aren’t average computer users. What looks like a disaster to us, may look great to Joe Average, and may sell quite well. The only way to be certain is wait and see.

    Unless you have Doc Brown’s Delorean parked in your garage.

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