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When you think about it, every netbook to date has been misnamed: They’ve run traditional operating systems, and worked just fine even when you didn’t have an Internet connection. But netbooks based on Google’s Chrome OS will be different: At best, they’re going to have very limited functionality when you’re not online. Whether they turn out to be wildly popular or a legendary flop, they’re something new. They’re…netbooks!
So let’s keep this T-Poll short and sweet:
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.
I’m at the Googleplex this morning, where Google is showing off Chrome OS for the first time. More details to come, but I’m tweeting the news fast and furious at the moment–follow me at Twitter to see the news as fast as I learn it.
On Thursday morning, Google is holding a press event that sounds like it’ll be the closest thing to an official introduction that the company’s Chrome OS for netbooks has gotten to date:
While this will be more of a technical announcement, we will be showing a few demos that will definitely be of interest to you as well as a complete overview and our launch plans for next year. We’ll also hold a Q&A session with members of the Google Chrome OS team following the presentation and demos.
I’ll be at the Googleplex for the briefing, and will blog it here just as quickly as I can. I’m still recovering from compiling my Internet Explorer 9 wish list, so I’m not going to muse on what I’d like to see in Chrome OS, or guess at what it’s likely to involve. But would any of you like to take a stab at it?
TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington is reporting that Google plans to release an early version of its Chrome OS netbook operating system next week. It’s presumably a very early version, since Google says that machines running Chrome OS won’t arrive until the second half of next year.
Google says that Chrome OS will be Linux-based, Web-centric, and designed to eliminate installation and security headaches. Other than that, though, it hasn’t had much to say about the OS. (Among the major remaining questions: Just how useful will a Chrome OS netbook be when it’s not connected to the Internet?) Consequently, it’s been hard to have much of an opinion at all about the product other than that it should be fun to see what happens as Google launches yet another salvo at Microsoft. Stay tuned for some answers, I hope…
I persist in believing that we don’t know enough about Google’s Chrome OS to either love the idea or hate it. But this I know: If Chrome OS netbooks only work when they’ve got an active Internet connection, they’ll make no sense at all. The day may come when Internet access is available everywhere and everywhere. But for now, computers need to provide some level of functionality even when they’re cut off from the Net.
I’m assuming that Google wouldn’t dispute that and is building a Chrome OS that will work offline in one fashion or another. Which got me thinking about a Google project that’s both one of my favorites and a major disappointment: Gears.
When Google announced in 2007 that it was developing a framework to help Web services run even when the Web wasn’t available, my PC World pals and I got so excited that we named Gears as the year’s most innovative product. Then another few months passed, and I got worried that the Web wasn’t jumping on the Gears bandwagon as quickly as I’d hoped it would.
Gears is now more than two years old, and the list of services that support it remains remarkably short. Actually, I’m not sure if there is an official list of Gears-friendly services: Google’s Gears site refers to a “select group” of services, but doesn’t mention them. In this case, “select” is presumably a synonym for “short.” The Wikipedia page for Gears mentions fifteen Gears-enabled services, six of which are from Google itself. For the most part, they don’t replicate all their Web functionality within an offline browser–even Gmail, which may have the neatest Gears implementation to date, offers a reduced set of features.
Making Web services work sans Web is, clearly, really hard. Even for a company with as many smart people and resources as Google (and Gears is an open-source project, so it’s not even limited by the amount of attention Google is able to devote to it). I’m still a Gears fan, and I’m still hopeful that Gears will turn out to be a late bloomer rather than a cool idea that never caught on. For now, though, it’s proof that Web technologies still benefit mightily from having access to the Web.
As far as I know, Google hasn’t said what role Gears plays in Chrome OS. It’s a safe bet that it’s part of the OS, and that Gears-enabled services will work on Chrome OS netbooks. But does it provide Chrome OS with its only offline features? We just don’t know. Chrome OS is based on a Linux kernel, so it’s also entirely possible that it’ll have some level of support for Linux apps. Any guesses?
Daring Fireball’s John Gruber has an excellent post up on Chrome OS. He’s skeptical and critical. But most of all, he wants Google to put up or shut up: “I like facts, demos, and best of all, shipping products. I don’t like vague promises,” he says.
And that’s the thing about Chrome OS: Google announced it without telling the world enough to allow us to form coherent opinions about it. If it has a fresh, inventive, and useful interface, it’ll be a lot more interesting than if it’s a reduced-functionality knock-off of Windows or OS X. But we just don’t know. If it’s autonomous enough to stay useful even when you’re not connected, it’ll be a lot more interesting than if it’s crippled by the lack of an Internet connection. But we just don’t know. If Google intends to make it possible to install Chrome OS on a variety of hardware, it’ll be more interesting than if it only works on a handful of netbooks. But we just don’t know. And so on.
There’s no law that a company needs to wait to announce a product until it’s ready to discuss it in detail. Conspiracy theories abound about why Google started talking about Chrome OS when it did. I’m not hazarding any guesses about the timing. But I do know that the only bottom line on Chrome OS that makes much sense right now is “Well, it could be interesting.”
Oh, and another thing we just don’t know about Chrome OS: When Google plans to show it to us, rather than describe it in general terms…
Among the things that Google says about its upcoming Chrome OS is that it’s going to shine from a security standpoint:
And as we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.
IDG News Service’s Grant Gross talked to security guru Bruce Schneier, who isn’t just skeptical about Google’s promises–he’s downright insulting:
Bruce Schneier, the chief security technology officer at BT, scoffed at Google’s promise. “It’s an idiotic claim,” Schneier wrote in an e-mail. “It was mathematically proved decades ago that it is impossible — not an engineering impossibility, not technologically impossible, but the 2+2=3 kind of impossible — to create an operating system that is immune to viruses.”
Like much of what Google has said about Chrome OS so far, its claims about security are pretty darn vague, which leaves us on the outside who try to fact-check them at a disadvantage. It doesn’t say that the OS is virus- and malware-free–just that folks “won’t have to deal with” these threats. I “don’t have to deal with” viruses and malware on my Mac in the sense that I’ve never been infected. But that’s not the same thing as the OS being invulnerable. And while Google might be confident that it’s building something that won’t ever require Windows-style constant patching, I can’t quite believe it’s saying that there are no circumstances under which Chrome OS might need a security fix, period.
We still know very little about just how much of Chrome OS and users’ data will reside on the netbook, and how much will live remotely on Google’s servers. Maybe the local OS won’t do much more than boot the computer and provide drivers and a rendering engine. Maybe all user files will be stored in the cloud. If so, it’s possible that Chrome OS will be radically safer than traditional desktop OSes.
Even so, Schneier’s surely right that it’s impossible to write an OS that’s 100.000000% impervious to viruses. As long as computing involves the fallible devices known as human beings, there’s a chance that somebody will unwittingly allow a particularly piece of software onto the system.
Here’s a way of looking at it: In the post I quote at the top of this story, Google makes reference to the Chrome browser when touting the security of Chrome OS. Chrome the browser is indeed well-done from a security standpoint, but that doesn’t mean that Google hasn’t had to patch up holes. If Chrome-the-OS is as safe as the browser, it’ll be a point in its favor. But it won’t give users a license to fall asleep at the wheel.