This week, Google released the source code for Chrome OS and promised that devices will be shipping in about a year, in time for the 2010 holiday season. Chrome OS will run only on devices specifically manufactured for it and Google is dictating to manufacturers the hardware specifications. For instance, Chrome OS devices will be netbooks, will not include a hard drive, will have only solid state disks, will rely on specified WiFi chipsets/adapters for connectivity and must have full-sized keyboards, says Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product management.
Google demonstrated a prototype of Chrome OS on Thursday and invited the open source community to participate in its development. (It is available here: http://src.chromium.org/) Chrome OS is lauded by its makers as a completely new method of personal computing and it does have a number of features that are intriguing. On the other hand, the device, as envisioned today, is really another incarnation of a concept that has been around a long while, the thin client mobile Internet device.
On the plus side, Google has promised that Chrome OS devices will have the following five goodies:
1. Speedy boot-up, as fast as three seconds.
A Chrome OS device will not store any applications on the device itself. Nadda, none, zippo, says Pichai. Likewise, it will include only the hardware, right down to the component level, that Google has approved in its hardware reference specification. The only applications it will use are those that can be run from the cloud in a browser, the Chrome browser, to be specific. One of the primary reasons for this is to speed up boot time. With no local applications and limited hardware, the device doesn't need to run through long checklist looking for devices and drivers, loading programs into resident memory and so on. It should turn on like a television, says Pichai. Flip a switch and the within three seconds browser should be available, showing the most recent browser windows.
2. Security by default.
The portion of the operating system needed to operate the device will reside in a read-only section of memory. The rest of the operating system is integrated with the Chrome browser and, like the browser, security updates require nothing more than a reboot. Chrome OS can run multiple Web applications in multiple tabs and each one is locked down from all others, so a vulnerability in one Web app can't lead to exposure in another. User data stored on the device, which is minimal, is encrypted. User data is limited to items such as user preferences. All other data will be stored in the cloud. User preferences will also be synched to a cloud account, so like any thin client. should you lose the device, you would merely log in from another one and your data and preferences should be there.
3. Support for both x86 and ARM architectures.
Google promises that it will be writing native code for both popular netbook CPUs.
4. The application menu.
As new Web applications come online tweaked for Chrome OS, Chrome OS will showcase them on a permanent tab it now calls the application menu. This will help users find new applications. Developers with new apps will find this an easier method to showcase them, too. Any Web application that runs in a standards compliant browser should work on a Chrome OS device. But Chrome OS is focused on supporting new protocols such as HTML 5, which, among other improvements, natively supports rich media.
5. A surprising way to support Microsoft Office.
If you ask a Google executive any question involving Microsoft, you'll hear the cliche answer -- that they company thinks only of users and not of its perceived competitors. But in one of the giggle-inducing moments of Thursday's demo, Pichai, showed how Chrome OS would handle Office documents -- via Microsoft Office Live, the free Web app version of Office available to Windows Live users. If a user clicks on an .xls document, Chrome launches Excel via the browser in Office Live. "Microsoft launched a killer app for Chrome OS …and is working very hard to do that," he quipped.