Chrome OS: What We Know and Don’t Know

By  |  Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Four months ago, Google announced it was working on an operating system for netbooks called Chrome OS. Today, at a press event at the Googleplex which I attended, the company demonstrated it in public for the first time and provided more details about its plans.

Nothing Google had to say came as a great revelation–it largely confirmed and expounded upon the goals laid out in the initial blog post on the project. Chrome OS will emphasize speed, simplicity, and security; it’ll store everything in the cloud; it’ll come preinstalled on netbooks. And it’s an open-source product with a Linux heart beating deep inside.

After the jump, my first stab at collecting known and unknown details about the OS–additions, corrections, and questions welcome.

What’s the interface like?

That’s easy: It’s like Chrome the browser. Remarkably so. Pretty much, it looks like a version of Chrome that sprung little nubby legs and crawled out of the primordial ooze.

Chrome OS does have some interface aspects that Chrome lacks, such as a list of apps, the ability to pin apps in tabs so they stay around, and widget-like “Panels” that pop up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. (Actually, that last feature reminds me of how the Tasks list works in Gmail.)

Google says that everything about Chrome OS is subject to change before the first netbooks using it ship, but for now, what’s most striking about Chrome OS’s interface is how unstriking it is. It’s Chrome.

When will Chrome netbooks appear?

About a year from now.

What’ll the specs be like?

Well, for one thing, these machines won’t have hard drives. They’ll use solid-state disks, which is one reason why Google can reasonably be telling folks that Chrome OS machines will boot in a few seconds. (Solid-state storage is expensive, but if Chrome OS systems store everything in the cloud, they should be able to get away with tiny disks.)

Google says it’s working with hardware companies to determine spec guidelines for Chrome OS PCs–and that it would like to see them have at least somewhat larger screens and comfier keyboards than most current netbooks.

How much will Chrome OS machines cost?

Don’t expect any news until well into next year. They’ll clearly be low-cost portables, but here’s one question: Since Google, unlike Microsoft, won’t charge for the operating system, will they be strikingly cheaper than similar Windows 7 systems?

Who’ll make Chrome OS netbooks?

Google didn’t talk about hardware partners today, but it has in the past. Acer, Asus, HP, and Lenovo are all involved with the project and will presumably offer Chrome OS machines.

I want to buy a Chrome OS desktop.

Um, that isn’t a question. But Google said today that its focus for 2010 is on netbooks. Chrome OS on other types of computers might come later.

Will I be able to install Chrome OS on my own computer?

Officially, the answer we got to that today was “no.”  But at the same time, Google talked about developers installing it right now on netbooks. My guess is that nerds will create Hackintosh-like unofficial Chrome OS netbooks, sharing their knowledge about how to do the job. Google may not help, but it won’t stop them, either.

Will you be able to use a Chrome OS system when you don’t have an Internet connection?

Yes. Maybe. At least sort of. Google says that Chrome OS PCs will be meant principally for use when you’re online, and that local storage is there mostly to cache data until the OS can push it up to the cloud. But there will be at least some capability to store local media such as music, and Google said that it’ll support new HTML5 features designed to enable offline use.

I’m still hazy, however, about whether Google’s Gears offline technology will be part of Chrome OS–if so, it’ll be a boon, since Gmail and Google Docs will have some degree of capability when you’re not connected–or whether a Chrome OS laptop would go into doorstop mode when you were on a plane without Wi-Fi.

One thing we do know: Google has no plans to let Chrome OS use traditional client apps, although, as a Linux variant, it could presumably do so.

What are the benefits of data living in the cloud?

It’s available from any Chrome OS netbook, for one thing. And assuming that Google takes good care of it, you don’t need to worry about backups. (I’m not clear on whether Chrome-the-browser will have access to a Chrome OS netbook owner’s personal workspace, but it would be pretty neat if you could log into your Chrome OS desktop from a browser on a PC or Mac–especially since Google says it sees Chrome OS machines as secondary computers.)

What makes Chrome OS so secure?

Apps are sandboxed, so they can’t interfere with each other. The root system is read only. All user data is encrypted. And code is signed: The OS checks itself at boot time, and if anything looks fishy, it downloads chunks of itself on the fly and reinstalls them.

Will Chrome OS support Flash?

Yup.

Silverlight?

No comment.

Will Android apps work?

No–they’re client software. Chrome OS doesn’t run client apps.

Will other browsers run on Chrome OS?

Depends on how you look at it, and how things transpire. Chrome OS won’t support local applications, so you won’t be able to download and install Firefox. But Chrome OS is an open-source project, so there’s nothing stopping a Firefox fan from attempting to build a Chrome OS that somehow encompasses Firefox.

Will I be able to tweak my Chrome OS setup? I’ve made so many changes to my Windows machine it’s unrecognizable.

Well, I assume Google will give you some ability to fiddle with color schemes, wallpaper, and the like. But as far as I know, you won’t be able to install utilities that let you fiddle with the interface in ways that Google didn’t intend or permit. That would be running local applications, and Chrome OS doesn’t run local applications.

Will there be a Chrome OS app store?

Google said it’s still figuring out the best ways to help users find useful tools they can use on Chrome OS netbooks. But the company did point out that when all your apps are Web apps, you’ve got millions of items to choose from–not the iPhone’s 100,000 programs.

Will my printer, scanner, phone, MP3 player, EVDO adapter, external hard drive, USB TV tuner, and smartpen work with Chrome OS?

Good question! Google made cryptic references to a non-traditional plan it has to let Chrome OS netbooks work, and says it’s working with hardware companies to draw up a list of devices that Chrome OS will support. It seems like it’s a given that a lot of stuff won’t work, especially at first. And we don’t yet know whether Chrome OS will be so wildly popular that Canon, say, will champ at the bit to write drivers for all its gadgets that let Chrome OS users buy and use ‘em.

Who is Chrome OS meant for, exactly?

You know, Google didn’t quite articulate that today. But it would seem that it’ll target users who (A) want an inexpensive second computer; (B) find Windows too complicated, slow, unsafe, and/or unreliable; (C) rarely go anywhere where they can’t get online; (D) are comfortable with a machine they can’t customize the heck out of; and (E) don’t have any traditional client applications that they absolutely, positively can’t live without.

Is the world ready for a 100% cloud-based computer?

That’s the big question, right? I want you guys to discuss it in the comments. But my take is this: The idea will make more sense a year from now, but it’ll still be very early to consider cutting yourself off entirely from local apps and storage. And Google was vague enough today that I’m still unclear about just how useful (or useless) a Chrome OS system is when the Internet is unavailable.

More thoughts to come. I’m already curious whether there’s any chance I can figure out how to install the Chrome OS code that went public today on my own personal netbook, which happens to be an Asus EeePC 1000HE…anyone else out there contemplating trying to get the OS up and running?

 
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16 Comments For This Post

  1. Naily Says:

    As much as Chrome OS sounds like a good idea, I am a bit sceptical.

    Seeing everything will be stored in the cloud, I wonder if it will be possible to share data in a private network.

    Imagine working on a big project or university assignment. A couple of days before it's due, you lose your internet connection, and seeing there's no backup… They are talking about cached data or ability to work offline, but will this not determine what data you can or cannot access when you're not connected?

  2. Johnny Worthington Says:

    Harry,

    It’s designed for my mum, sister, my grandma…. and me… well, relaxing/travelling me.

    Mum: I can buy her a cheap laptop and not give them tech support.

    Me: Besides my photo and audio editing, I am all browser.

    J

  3. Tom B Says:

    “Will Chrome OS support Flash?
    Yup.
    Silverlight?
    No comment.”

    Google wimps out; we consumers would prefer NEITHER.

  4. James Says:

    Interesting question via @bynkii. Who is responsible for tech support? Google is particularly bad at it. Maybe Google can pawn it off on the hardware partners.

  5. Backlin Says:

    I would wait until wireless access blankets the entire nation reliably before jumping into cloud computing. And I’m surprised to learn that Google even has tech support!

    I’m liking the “Is Chrome OS Secure?” section of this article, operating systems have been needing to do all those things for quite some time now.

  6. rollme Says:

    I’m looking at this from an IT admin perspective. What, if any, impact will this have on desktop virtualization? My initial thoughts are that it could either play nice with with it, or render it passe.

  7. Darrencardinal Says:

    The article mentions support for Flash, how about the ability to play videos in full screen mode?

    Linux seems to have a problem with that.

  8. heulenwolf Says:

    It will be interesting to see how this develops. IMHO, its success largely depends on Google’s ability to implement magic caching – like Google Gears but for everyone else’s web apps, too. I guess HTML 5 takes care of some of that. So, perhaps its success depends on how well and quickly HTML 5 is adopted by good web app developers.

    Yes, most of the time, I use my netbook to get online. But what got me to buy it were the prospects of watching movies on its gorgeous little screen on a long plane ride and copying photos off of memory cards while on vacation – regardless of whether I’d have WiFi access on the trip. There are lots of ways to simply get online.

    If all the apps are web apps, how do I watch a movie stored not in the cloud but on a memory card? Is someone going to write web app for playing movies stored locally? If so, is Chrome OS going to cache the app itself so that I can run it when I’m on the plane (without WiFi)? Same questions go for a photo viewing/lite editing app. Can HTML 5 and/or Javascript really make these things happen without a server to do the heavy lifting?

  9. mick Says:

    I agree that Johnny Worthington and his family is the initial target market. And as the years go by, and Internet access becomes more and more available, and people get more and more comfortable with having their data in the cloud, the OS becomes a viable alternative in more and more areas.

  10. pond Says:

    Techcrunch has instructions on running ChromeOS as a virtualbox machine.

  11. Lazlo St. Pierre Says:

    I can see the appeal of this. I already have a netbook running Ubuntu that’s purely used as a portable web access device. I can see myself buying one of these machines to have as a cheap portable quickstarting web access device.

    I’m just wondering if I’ll be able to store things like a collection of MP3s on it so I can plug headphones into it and listen to music while I browse the web.

  12. alex Says:

    google will be making a huge mistake not allowing android apps to run on chrome. i think they made a mistake in the beginning by not making android and chrome one OS.

    this is where apple will succeed should it release a tablet.
    no, im not a fanboy, but this is how i see it.

  13. litl_phil Says:

    Hi Harry

    You’ve picked up on what is perhaps the most important point about cloud-based OSs: they have to be about who uses them and where. And of course that they’re inevitable: as the web becomes the platform and the internet becomes a utility, like mains power, then the computer becomes a home appliance, in fact it already is. You don’t have to maintain your toaster, so why do you have to maintain your home web machine?

    Litl has been working on our cloud-based webbook for the home for several years and it is available now at litl.com. While we’re glad that Google and others are joining the fray of cloud OSs, there are differences in that litl is designed as a good-looking home appliance that anyone can use. Our interface comes first with our users in mind, and we want to change the way people use the web at home. We want to integrate media streams and webapps into the interface.

    Litl is about providing choice; Chrome means more choice again for consumers, and, in the evolution of web-based OSs, we don’t see that as a bad thing. More like: welcome to the club Google!

  14. Jheany Says:

    I have installed Chrome OS on one of my laptops. Well, it feels like Ubuntu GUI the first time i use it. It is pretty much very basic.

  15. Forex Programming Says:

    Interesting question via @bynkii. Who is responsible for tech support? Google is particularly bad at it. Maybe Google can pawn it off on the hardware partners.
    Forex Programming

  16. jackhopes123 Says:

    Interesting question via @bynkii. Who is responsible for tech support? Google is particularly bad at it. Maybe Google can pawn it off on the hardware partners.
    loyalty program

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