Google Chrome OS. Round-Up, Podcasts, Thoughts.

Posted on 16 July 2009, Last updated on 16 July 2009 by

chrome_logo On the 7th July, Google announced that they are developing an operating system called ‘Google Chrome OS.’

“Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010.”

“…redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates”

“..Google Chrome running within a new windowing system”

“…Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips.”

The world of Internet journalism went mad and Techmeme lit up as a result of the announcement. Thousands of blogs responded too. It was quite an interesting response for what is essentially another Linux distro. Perhaps it reflects the desire for a real consumer-level alternative out there. It certainly proves the power of the Google brand and that could be the most important aspect of the whole product.

I’ve been analysing the official announcement, the blogs and some of the podcasts that are available and made some notes. I’ve pulled the main points out of the announcement above and the one that I want to start with is the one that mentions a ‘new windowing system.’

The standard Linux windowing system is based on a software component called X11. It’s been around since the mid-80’s and it’s responsible for placing graphics on the screen, controlling the mouse and providing a framework for a multi-user graphical user interface. It’s used by almost every Linux distribution and almost every single window-based application. X11 is a heavyweight, memory-hungry layer and it certainly needs sliming down for a netbook-type experience but if the X11 component is taken away as the Google announcement indicates and the Chrome OS succeeds in gaining market share, this could be the worst thing to ever happen to the Linux ecosystem. It threatens one of the biggest opportunities for companies like Canonical, Xandros and the hundreds of groups of people working on windowing systems and apps. It also competes directly with the operating system that Intel is working on Moblin. Traditional Linux distributors have already signed up for that in the hope that it will be picked up by most netbook manufacturers.

It’s not 100% certain that Google is talking about removing the traditional X-Windows layer when they talk about a new windowing system but it certainly looks that way. The good news is that the Chrome OS is probably not intended as a replacement operating system. At least not initially. The idea is probably that it’s an OS option for some early adopters but for most, it will co-exist with a traditional Linux or Microsoft windowing system with Chrome OS starting up first (possibly on BIOS or as a fast-boot Linux ) and traditional Linux and Windows being available in the background once fully booted. Virtualisation technologies could take this further to make multi-OS devices a possibility. Imagine your XP or WIndows 7 operating system sleeping while the Chrome OS remains active for immediate use. Google knows that the world isn’t ready for a switch to cloud computing yet and doesn’t want to upset too many companies with the Chrome OS so a multi-OS netbook seems highly likely as a way to ease the idea of cloud-computing into the market. Look at it as a 10-year plan that will mature with mobile technology and mobile internet connectivity.

Taking away the X11 Windowing system means that we aren’t going to see many local, native applications on the system which makes me think that the Chrome OS is going to be the showcase that pulls the Google application suite together in an HTML5 environment. The start menu will simply be a syncronised bookmark system and cookies and Google Gears will be the method to control sessions and offline activity. Google certainly has a rich set of applications and in recent months we’ve seen many of these applications moving to release status but there’s a lot more that needs to be done. High-resolution location awareness. Stylish applications. 3D support and local network awareness. Will Chrome be able to see shared network drives? Hardware support will be critical too. Linux has never been an operating system that you can rely on to be aware of the most recent hardware and this could be that hardest job for Google. Wifi, 3G, Webcams, Audio, Touch, power control, USB and many other elements of hardware that often uses closed-source code. Its the reason that Nokia and Intel got together and Google will have to reach out to similar companies in order to stay up to date, especially when they are targeting both ARM and X86-based hardware architectures. Maybe Google uses Linux Foundation’s Moblin core and re-builds the UI layer on top. That could be the easiest way to attack the netbook market.

Another element that needs to be introduced before Chrome OS is possible is online storage. Google doesn’t have an online storage product yet although there have been many rumors of a GDrive. Expect this to happen before Chrome OS is launched.

What Google does have available is the idea of single sign-on and 100% provider-controlled security. Automatic updates have helped reduce the problem of security patching and application updates but network-side applications take this to another level. The user doesn’t have to be connected to the internet for updates to download and service packs would be a thing of the past. Applications can even be instantly shut down in the case of an important security issue. With all applications using the same set of cookies, you only need to control one application password. If other internet application providers link into Google’s OpenID system, changing a password across 50 applications would be a one-shot move.

The idea of a third party security concept is going to worry a lot of people. You’ll hear a lot of talk about ‘Big Brother’ but when out into perspective, when analysed for real risk, handing over your security to a third party is nearly always a better option unless you make it part of your daily life to run a security policy. Do you have one? I guess not. I was an internet security manager for over 5 years and I learned very quickly that my personal security was atrocious. I handed my data over to Google a long time ago. A risk remains but it’s much lower than before.

Podcasts

I’ve listened to a number of podcasts that cover the topic of the Google Chrome OS. Here’s a rundown of some you might also want to listen to.

Meet:Mobility. Sascha, JKK and I talk about how Intel have been involved and how it could sit alongside Moblin or even use parts of Moblin (in a similar way that Nokia is sharing device drivers with Intel.) We didn’t have the important information that there’s no X-Windows layer though.

Gdgt think browser only. No native apps. They highlight that there’s no X-Windows layer (on which nearly all Linux apps run.)

Buzz out loud. Why not keep the Android brand? No native apps?

Twit. Ryan Block highlights (again) that there’s no X-Window layer which means most other Linux apps wont work. Ryan also highlights the hardware control issues. Audio, screen etc.

Engadget includes special guest Michael Gartenberg on their podcast who thinks it will hurt the traditional Linux community the hardest where netbooks are a real opportunity. A lively and deep discussion.

Mobile Tech Roundup. Kevin Tofel highlights the difference between web apps and native apps and that web-based apps could improve with HTLM5.

Other points to consider.

  • 2010 could be more than a year away.
  • Open Source means that there will be another glut of distros based around it.
  • App store? With no X-Window layer, the idea of selling applications disappears. It’s all about selling services and content.
  • Will it be faster than desktop version? Probably not noticeably faster than a clean build of Windows XP Home.
  • Is it a mobile-focused OS? ‘Mobile’ does not equall ‘Cloud.’ Many parts of the world, including the U.S., aren’t ready for a consumer focused mobile operating system. The mobile connectivity costs are too high.
  • Touch capability for tablet functionality. This is a UI and driver issue.
  • 3D support. 3D is important for modern software aesthetics.
  • Techrunch brings up an interesting point. Does bundling a browser into an operating system bring up anti-competitive issues? Probably not when the OS is open and free.
  • HTML 5. Will Google re-architect its applications for HTML5?
  • Location-awareness. Google has back-end that can determine the location from an IP adress but the browser will need to support the Geo-aware API that Firefox 3.5 uses in order to provide control and capability for other web-based applications. It’s arguable that GPS support would be needed for fine-grain accuracy too.
  • Android emulation. We’ve seen it in Moblin. Will it be a part of the Chrome OS?
  • It’s clear now that Android not coming to PC’s through any official channels.
  • A Chrome OS using a Moblin 2 core on a Moorestown platform could provide an always-on smartbook experience.

Summary

I think the Google Chrome OS will be a showcase for the launch of Google’s re-written HTML-5 app suite. It will run in an enhanced Chrome envelope and have basic windowing system capabilities. It IS a threat to the low-end of Windows desktop OS where Windows 7 takes 8GB and 1GB of RAM along with a licence fee and it also threatens Moblin but it could be made so thin, resource-light and simple that it could be used alongside existing operating systems using virtualisation techniques. Using the latest low-power platforms for X86 (Intel’s Moorestown) and ARM, the Chrome OS could be used to make stand-alone Chrome hardware devices at very low cost. 3rd-party device support will be a challenge that could be solved by teaming up closely with hardware manufacturers in an expanded version of the Open Handset Alliance.

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