Google released its Chrome operating system to the open-source community on Thursday and said it has designed the netbook OS to be faster, simpler and more secure than existing ones.
However, Google also made it clear that Chrome will not be able to replicate everything that other operating systems do. For example, Chrome OS will only run web-hosted applications and its peripherals will have to comply with specific hardware reference designs. This means it will not even be able to run applications built for Google's own Android mobile operating system.
As such, when the first Chrome OS netbooks hit the market at the end of 2010, Google expects them to be "companion" devices whose owners will also have conventional PCs in their houses.
"There are applications today that aren't available on the web. We're really focused, as the use case for this device, that most people who buy this device next year, we expect them to have another machine [with a conventional operating system] at home," said Sundar Pichai, vice president of Product Management at Google. "The goal of this device is for it to be a delightful experience for you to be on the web. That's the scenario we're focusing on."
"There will be some things this will not be able to do. If you're a lawyer and are planning to spend your entire day editing contracts back and forth, this isn't the right machine for you," Pichai added at a press conference at Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters that was webcast.
As such, it seems that the Linux-based Chrome OS will also require that end-users be very comfortable with cloud computing and its basic idea of keeping applications and their data stored in a vendor data center.
In exchange, Google is promising an operating system that it says will be exponentially faster at booting up and significantly more secure than conventional PC operating systems like Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Mac OS.
Google is taking the right approach by narrowing the scope of the Chrome OS to netbook devices and web applications, said Gartner analyst Ray Valdes. "It would be a mistake for Google to try to do a conventional operating system. That war was fought and won long ago, mostly," Valdes said.
People who evaluate Chrome OS using the criteria commonly applied to conventional desktop OSes are missing the point. "Some people have been asking: ‘Can I run full-fledged Photoshop, or full-fledged Excel on Chrome OS?’ and ‘What about all the device drivers from all the vendors and the peripheral cards?’ These were never part of the mission," Valdes said.
To succeed, Chrome OS will have to revitalise the netbook market, which has been slowing down as conventional laptops get cheaper and the line between these two types of devices gets blurred, Valdes said. It will also be critical for hardware vendors to make a genuine commitment to the Chrome OS, and not just use it as a bargaining chip to get better Windows license prices from Microsoft, he said.
In a demo, Google officials showed a Chrome OS device booting up in seven seconds, and said they hope to make that even faster. The Chrome OS interface will be Google's Chrome browser and will be based on application tabs. Because Chrome OS doesn't need the usual OS software to support local applications and processes, it can run much faster.
"We want Chrome OS to be blazingly fast. From the time you press 'boot', we want it to be like a TV," Pichai said. "You turn it on, and you should be on the web using your application."
In addition to a faster boot up, Google is designing the Chrome OS to have a speedier performance in general by mapping it tightly to the Chrome browser and requiring unique hardware specifications.
Chrome OS' simplicity claim begins with the familiarity of its browser-based interface, where every application is a web app and there are no desktop-type programs, Pichai said. "The users don't have to install programs, nor software, manage updates, nothing. It's a web app, it's a link, it's a URL," he said.
If someone loses their Chrome OS netbook, they should be able to buy a new one, log in and access all their applications and data, as well as any personalised settings instantly, because it will all be cloud-based, Pichai said.
For security, Chrome OS places each application within what Google calls a "security sandbox," stripping applications of the usual, broad access rights they have in conventional operating systems, and thus limiting their ability to do damage if compromised by malware. If Chrome OS detects a security problem, it has been designed to reboot itself to address the problem.
"Chrome OS runs completely inside the browser security model, which is very different from how traditional operating systems run today," Pichai said.
Chrome OS devices will not support hard drives, only solid-state storage devices, and it will encrypt and synchronise data continuously between the computer and the cloud.
Other vendors will be able to take the Chrome OS, which is freely available as open-source software, and adapt it to work with other browsers if they choose, Pichai said.
"Call us dumb businessmen, but we're really focused on user needs ... and I think there is a real user need to be able to use computers easily," said Google co-founder and President of Technology Sergey Brin.