Google released its formerly mysterious Chrome Operating System to open source Nov. 19.
While geeks the world over may be playing with the code, helping to mold the finished product, those who attended or watched the launch event remotely learned more about Google’s vision for the future of computing.
Chrome OS is a sort of Web operating system that boots up a netbook in a fraction of the time it takes to start today’s existing computers, with Web applications loading in just a few more seconds. Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management for Google, noted that he and his team are trying to make the Chrome OS load time closer to that of a television than a computer.
To do this, the Chrome OS team has bypassed many of the computing processes associated with traditional operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows, Apple’s Mac OS X and other today’s current Linux distributions, such as Red Hat or SuSe.
Those OS’ jump through several hoops before users can access their data, explained Matt Papakipos, engineering director for Chrome OS, who went through a technical preview of Chrome OS
For example, there’s a firmware process, a boot loader, the OS’ kernel loads, system services start, then start-up apps, and then a user has to click to start the Web browser. Then the computer begins to look for a floppy drive that no longer exists, bogging down the OS.
With Chrome OS, the boot loader is merged into a custom firmware startup. Then there is an optimized kernel to eliminate startup services. Because Chrome OS won’t run local applications, it doesn’t have to start up background services to prep apps to load. Finally, the Chrome browser loads automatically.
On the security side, Papakipos also said Chrome OS executes a verified boot, checking to make sure a Chrome OS user’s specific OS instantiation is running what it should be running. Chrome OS auto-updates itself, providing patches where necessary.
Every component of Chrome OS, from firmware, to the kernel, to the file, has a cryptographic signature attached to them. “It’s as if each one were a document that’s signed at the bottom with a John Hancock saying ‘Yes, this is the right set of bits,” Papakipos said.
If a potentially crushing malware instance is detected, the computer will then re-image itself if necessary, another departure from the desktop operating system model.
Chrome OS: Web Apps Need Only Apply
Papakipos also said all hardware devices running Chrome OS will be based on solid state storage. So, for now, netbooks only please.
“No hard disks. No disks with moving parts with iron particles on them,” Papakipos said. “It’s all entirely Flash memory-based storage solution. And that’s part of the reason we can load so quickly because we’re actually just reading out of RAM rather than out of a spinning magnetic drive. That makes a huge difference.”
Moreover, Google said it wants full-size keyboards on clamshell devices, 802.11n support, and left the door open to work with wireless carriers.
What do these cloud operating system characteristics translate to? Speed and simplicity.
During a demo, Pichai showed Chrome OS loading on an Asus Eee PC in seven seconds, with an application loading in just a few more. Chrome OS is geared to run only Web applications. That’s right — no local applications.
For some people, this will seem like a rebirth; it will be like starting their first computing experience all over again. For those whose first computing experience is on a Chrome OS netbook, which won’t arrive until at least November or December 2010, they may never know the woes associated with downloading software.
Web apps, such as Google Talk, Twitter and Facebook, will run on Google’s Chrome Web browser. Think of Chrome OS as the foundation for the Chrome browser, which is the window through which users will all access the Web apps. The Chrome browser is really the extension of Chrome OS.
Chrome OS provides a Tabs feature that organizes Web apps on one palette, not unlike what users are accustomed to seeing on smartphones such as the Apple iPhone or Android-based phones such as the Motorola Droid or HTC Eris.
Apps open into persistent panels with one click. Users can chat via Google Talk, watch videos from YouTube, update their Facebook status and tweet on Twitter, or access USB drives all on the fly from the app tabs.
Welcome to Google’s vision of computing. Though the reality, if it comes to fruition is still at least a year away. We don’t even know who Google’s hardware partners will be for Chrome OS (though we can guess Asus and other netbook makers will be among the chosen). What the event did was prepare us all.
Next year should be very exciting as Chrome OS goes head to head with Windows Azure, Microsoft’s own vision of the future of cloud computing.
In the meantime, read the coverage on TechMeme here, though these pieces from PC Magazine and Mashable hit the high points well. Moreover, TechCrunch explains how to begin using Chrome OS on a virtual machine here, why PC World explains why the OS will fail.