First Look at the New Google Operating System – Chrome OS

Back in July, Google made BIG waves in the tech industry by announcing the development of a Google operating system based on Linux. For years there’s been speculation about if/when Google would do this, and when the announcement hit, there was no shortage of people throwing in their two cents on how this new contender would be either the greatest thing in years, or a complete waste of time. Now that Google has finally opened the code for public view, we decided to take a look at what Chrome OS is really all about.

A note about terminology – The official Google products for the browser and OS are Chrome and Chrome OS, respectively. The open source versions are Chromium and Chromium OS. As they’re essentially the same thing, this article will use the terms Chrome and Chrome OS.

What is it?

As mentioned above, Google took the Linux kernel to use as the foundation for their new operating system. This makes perfect design sense, as it gives them a stable, mainstream, open and well-supported foundation on which to build. It’s good news for the rest of us as well, as it means we’ll have great hardware support and easy access to the guts of the system.

One of the most unusual aspects of Chrome OS is that it essentially does away with the concept of desktop applications. This means there’s no manual installation or removal of packages, no manual upgrades, and improved security. Even logins are done remotely, and use your GMail account name to authenticate. A nice side effect of this is that the single sign-on is used to automatically log you in to all Google services.

chromeOS-login

When you login to Chrome OS, you do not get a “desktop” or anything of the sort, you’re immediately dropped into the web browser (Google Chrome, of course).

chromeOS-browser

Obviously, when your whole UI is a web browser, you’re missing some things normally handled by the UI, like taskbars, clocks, and applets. The browser screen has been somewhat modified to include some desktop-panel type options. In the current version of Chrome OS, some of the normal desktop UI elements have been included in the Chrome browser. Here for example, you can see the buttons for power management and network setup.

chromeOS-netcontrols

Storing files

Chrome OS is split into a few parts on the disk. There’s essentially two major parts, the system files and the user files. The system files on Chrome OS are actually stored in a read-only partition, and there’s pretty much nothing the user can do to change them. This may sound weird at first, but it was designed this way for a reason. By keeping all system files separate and read-only, Google has increased security by allowing only approved software to exist on the local client. In fact, every time the OS boots, it checks the integrity of the OS and will re-image any files that may have been altered.

This of course begs the question “Well then how do I save files?”. User files are kept apart from the system files, and aren’t actually stored on the computer running Chrome OS. When you save a file, it is actually saved in “the cloud”, aka an internet server. Any files “saved” will be synced to your Google account and stored online.

While there are some drawbacks to that approach, there are a number of advantages as well. For one, you no longer have to worry about backing up that data. From what I know of Google’s data storage practices, your file will exist in no fewer than three separate locations at datacenters across the globe. If one, or even two of them somehow suffer a catastrophic failure, your data will still live on at the third. The other advantage is automatic portability. If I save files on my Chrome OS netbook, then forget it at home while on vacation, I can load up any other Chrome OS system and everything will be exactly the same as if I was on my own machine at home.

For details about how and why Chrome OS does things this way, you can watch the video here.

Conclusion

It’s hard to gauge what I think of Chrome OS for two main reasons. First, it is still fairly early in development and therefore can’t be considered an accurate picture of what the final product will be like. Second, the design choices made in Chrome OS require an entirely different perspective on exactly what an operating system should do. Having spent my life learning the details of the “traditional” way, it may be some time before I can fully wrap my head around all the pros and cons of the design.

That said, there are certainly some things to like and dislike about the current state of Chrome OS. Having removed all but the essential parts of a Linux OS, the boot speed is nothing short of phenomenal. Once logged in, the system is up and running in very few seconds. For someone who just wants to get up and online quickly, like a netbook user, this could be great. On the other hand, if you’re a power user who likes to get into the guts of the system and make things work your way, Chrome OS will likely leave you unsatisfied. There are no desktop applications, so any computer needs that can’t be met by a web app simply cannot be met. For me, that’s a pretty big drawback and I don’t think I’ll ever be using Chrome as my main desktop OS, but for thin clients, netbooks, and portable devices, Chrome OS could be exactly what we need.

UPDATE: A Google engineer has requested that I clarify this point.  Chrome OS is unsuitable as a desktop OS because it is not intended to be a desktop OS.  Chrome OS is for netbooks and other portable internet devices, and it is not meant to replace the likes of Linux and Windows on your desktop computer.

10 comments

  1. Actually Chrome OS has a similar concept with SplastTop (if i’m not mistaken) which used by Asus motherboard to enable super fast boot up to allow user to have internet access instantly. With the existent of Chrome OS, I think Asus and all other motherboard manufacturers should consider collaborating with Google to produce Chrome OS enabled motherboard to improve PC user experience. :)

  2. if they say they are not targeting windows, linux, or mac its not like any one would trust that. but its like they are saying for now, we just want windows share of netbook market.

  3. Well, you can view the Chrome OS as an accelerator for Google Applications and to large extent to any web applications. If Google succeeds with their endeavor, the web experience will be much richer and powerful than the desktop experience can ever be.

    Some other point to remember – the most portable machine is one you don’t have to carry. With Chrome OS, the focus will change from the physical device to the function it serves for you. In the TV in your living room, on your mobile or at some hotel room or a short-term office to rent (or even at Starbucks) you will have your cyber environment ready for you.

    It’s hard to envision at this state all the possible ramifications of this concept but it does look like a game changer and if anyone can pull this, it is Google.

    /d

    • Well put, Dror. That’s why I decided to reserve judgment on the OS until it’s more complete, and we all have a chance to see what this system can really do. It’s hard to gauge at this point exactly how this mobile OS design could affect how we use computers, but I agree that if anyone could pull it off, it’d be Google.

      Thanks for the comment.

  4. Google has aimed so low (7+3 seconds) with their fast boot system. My eeePC today with SSD boots into Moblin in 7-10 seconds. Though I also have a second linux based desktop system for a number of applications that are still not available on Moblin.

    The other aspect is that I use my eeePC with an encrypted partition that contains a lot of sensitive data that needs to remain in my control (outside the cloud).

    I no longer recommend any friend to buy an eeePC after they removed Linux from their offerings. Hopefully an arm based system with SSD and a decent linux system is the way to go. Google or not.

    I appreciate Google’s interest in the game, since OEMs will not be cowed down by MS on this account.

  5. Seems like Chrome OS is less of an OS, and more of a web-content enabler.

    No interest here…!!

    As some others above stated, using splash-top, moblin, or similar fast-boot options (heck, even windows vista returning from sleep is quick enough!), a user can access his/her web interfaces pretty darn quickly, and without the tyrannical dictatorship of Google’s Chrome OS telling the user what services and software to use in order to access his/her accounts.

    Dang-nab-it, any browswer nowadays can save your bookmarks and login/passwords. So, users have CHOICE of their web services (email or otherwise).

    How does google get away with calling a set of bookmarks on top of a linux kernel an “operationg system”???

    D.

  6. what kind of creepy linux zombie dude is this guy?

    omg, now he’s gonna hunt me down and eat my brains…..aahhh, run away!

  7. I would love the idea of yet another OS away from Microsoft or Apple, neither of these companies have been able to wow me lately. Apple is too expensive and Microsoft needs to learn to work on their OS longer before releasing it. Maybe Google can supply with a Desktop designed OS that runs well or maybe they will crash and burn like Microsoft has been doing quite so often lately.

  8. Booting is very quick, but wireless network discovery can take up to 10 minutes. It's still faster to boot up Windows and open the Chrome browser for a wireless connection.

  9. The Invention of Google Chrome will change the way we are using the traditional one, but in my opinion the speed of loading the OS depending on the speed of wireless connection.

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