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Google Chrome OS Preview

I never thought I'd be happy for major airline delays. But sitting for three hours in Los Angeles' LAX airport Thursday for my return trip home from PDC 2009, I was able to catch Google's official coming out party for Chrome OS. Expected to debut on netbook computers about a year from now, Chrome OS offers a far more credible alternative to Windows on the mainstream PCs people are actually using than do Apple's expensive Mac systems. And when you couple this announcement with Google's other Microsoft antagonistic efforts--such as Android, Google Apps, and Google Sync--you get a clear picture of the online giant's efforts to unseat the Windows maker. There is no company that could and likely will damage Microsoft as effectively as Google. Put simply Google Chrome OS is an important platform to watch. Here's what Google revealed this past week.

Market perspective

Thursday's on campus announcement was the second major event Google held for its nascent Chrome OS, and while some have churlishly referred to the project as vaporware, let's not be silly: Chrome OS is real, and by just announcing that it's working on such a thing, Google has already changed the PC operating landscape and then some. The question, going forward, is how much more it will change things. I anticipate seeing Microsoft lower the pricing on its functionally-challenged Windows 7 Starter edition, for example. But if the software giant is serious about competing with Google, it will need to do the unthinkable and simply make Windows 7 Starter available to PC makers for free. It will go kicking and screaming into such a future. The only question is how long it takes.

On a related note, one might opine that Chrome OS, in some ways, thus constitutes as much a threat to Apple as it does to Microsoft. I believe this to be the case, though I'd add that the threat isn't so much to the traditional Mac as it is to the iPhone/iPod touch platform, which may or may not soon be bolstered by a tablet-like device. Here's the thing: With the Mac, Apple has no designs on the low end at all, and it is instead targeting the sub-$1000 market almost exclusively with its "iTouch" products, which feature a stripped down OS X version with multi-touch capabilities. So the Mac will soldier on as it has, providing overly expensive PCs to users with deep pockets. Chrome OS, then, is a threat to iTouch, and since it will likely be sold through 3G wireless carriers just like a smart phone, it will compete head to head with the iPhone.


In any event, this is all speculation and we have an entire year to wait before we see how Google and its partners market and sell Chrome OS. Between now and then, Microsoft will ship Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) and, hopefully, improve its consumer-oriented cloud services, and deliver a major new Windows Mobile version. Apple, of course, will also release new versions of its iPhone/iPod touch software, possibly new generations of that hardware, and possibly the fabled iTablet. So a lot can and will change.

What Google announced

While Google didn't deliver a beta version of Chrome OS last week as was expected, the company did provide a number of important details about the work it's doing to create its first desktop OS. Here's what we found out.

It's based on the Chrome browser. It is the Chrome browser

While Google previously telegraphed its intentions to create Chrome OS as a superset of the Chrome web browser, the company really drove home what this means last week. "Google Chrome \[the browser\] is the foundation of everything we are doing here \[with Chrome OS\]," Pichai noted, later adding that it is more specifically the Linux version of Chrome that is the actual foundation. (Google has yet to ship a Mac or Linux version of Chrome, however.)

Chrome utilizes the superior WebKit rendering engine (also used by Apple's Safari) that I feel will be one of the top two web rendering engines on both the PC desktop and mobile devices going forward. It's also impressively fast with the script-based sites that will dominate the coming generation of web-based applications; Google cited tests showing Chrome to be 39 times faster than Internet Explorer 8 at JavaScript-based scripting.

WebKit also aggressively targets the coming HTML 5 standard, and since web applications are written for this platform, supporting HTML 5 is a huge focus for Chrome. And while no details were provided, Chrome--and, thus, Chrome OS--will provide access to HTML 5 features GPU-based hardware acceleration (like IE 9), video and audio playback capabilities, threads (for more efficient use of the multicore processors in modern PCs), notifications, real-time communication functionality, and local storage.

"Web applications need a way to communicate with your speaker, microphone, and camera," Pichai said, hinting at the kind of OS-level functionality that Chrome (and Chrome OS) will thus provide, thanks to HTML 5. "You need web applications to work offline. So we are exposing a database API, exposing local storage on the machine to the web application. Our goal is to take web applications, give them the capabilities they need so that they can be very rich, complex applications with the full functionality of desktop applications."

Capabilities aside, Chrome hasn't exactly taken the web by storm from a usage share perspective so far. Google says that it has over 40 million users, which sounds impressive. But the latest web browser usage share numbers prove otherwise: Chrome accounts for barely 3 percent of all web browsers in use worldwide, behind Safari (4.3 percent) and well behind IE (64.6 percent) and Firefox (25.3 percent). (On the other hand, it's already outperforming the lackluster Opera browser, which controls just 1.5 percent.)

With Chrome, Google is focusing on three main areas, which become all the more interesting when you realize that this browser is the foundation for its next OS: Speed, simplicity, and security. "Mostly speed," Pichai said, launching into a discussion of why this is important for web applications. "The most common feedback we get is, 'Chrome is fast.'"

Speaking of speed, as a new product, Chrome has benefitted from a rapid development and improvement cycle. Pichai noted that the company has shipped almost 20 updates to the browser in the past year, many of them major improvements. I've been tracking Chrome since it first shipped, and while this claim is true, and that the update process is largely seamless, I'd almost point out that such a thing is only possible because of the immature nature of the product. As it first shipped a year ago, Chrome was a very bare bones browser with few of the niceties afforded by IE or Firefox. Whether it can maintain its speed advantage as it matures functionally remains to be seen.

Addressing industry trends

Google noted that Chrome OS will address three key market trends that it is "very excited about."

The first is the growth of netbooks. While much of the mainstream PC industry has stagnated or even fallen well behind last year's numbers, netbooks are on a tear and are set to account for about 35 million units sold in 2009, or well over 12 percent of all PCs. (By comparison, the Mac accounts for less than 3.5 percent of all PCs sold worldwide.) "This growth happened in the worst economy since the Great Depression," Pichai said.

I agree with that, but the contention that users are gravitating towards netbooks because they're "ultra-thin, ultra-light, and ultra-mobile," as Pichai claimed, is off-based. Users are buying netbooks because they're ultra-cheap, and they're putting up with performance and form factor limitations inherent in such devices because they have to. (More to the point, today's netbooks aren't acceptable replacements for existing PCs but are rather PC companion devices, which Pichai did admit. If Google is serious about targeting netbooks with Chrome OS, then I hope that will involve a coming generation of slightly bigger devices that offer better performance.)

The second trend is cloud computing. No surprise there, as Google pretty much invented--and certainly popularized--the concept. "Hundreds of millions of users are \[already\] living on the cloud," Pichai said. "For a lot of people, 100 percent of what \[they\] do is in the cloud." The trend here is very clear, he added: Developers are targeting the cloud and not the desktop with new applications. "The cloud is the most successful platform out there."

The third trend is the tremendous innovation around portable computing devices. On the low end, phones are becoming smarter and more ubiquitous. On the high end are traditional notebook computers. Between them are netbooks, tablets, and other portable computing devices. What these things all have in common is that they are all, effectively, computers: They expose APIs, they run apps, and so on. They are also, increasingly, more like phones: They're always on, they're always connected to the Internet, often via a 3G-type wireless network.

The convergence of these devices represents "a new model of computing," Pichai said, "a better model of personal computing. That's what Chrome OS is."

Introducing Chrome OS

Finally, the moment of truth. "With Google Chrome OS, we are again focused on three things," Pichai said. "It's speed, simplicity and security."

Speed. Chrome OS will be "blazingly fast," Pichai noted. "We want it to be like a TV. You turn it on and you're on the web, using your applications." It's not just about the boot time--which right now is pegged at about 7 seconds, though Google expects it to get lower. Google wants the "end to end" Chrome OS experience to be just as fast, thanks to the fact that Chrome--or what Google calls "Chrome on Chrome OS"--understands the underlying operating system.

Google Chrome OS preview

"Chrome on Chrome OS will be even faster than Chrome," he added.

Simplicity. Pichai called this out as one of the most important things Google is doing with Chrome OS. "In Chrome OS, every application is a web application," he said, answering questions about how the platform would work. "There are no conventional desktop applications. Users don't have to install programs, manage updates, nothing ... A computer should just work."

The next bit will be controversial in some circles, though it shouldn't be. "All data in Chrome OS is in the cloud," Pichai continued. "We really want it to be easy for you, \[the user,\] to use the machine. We want all of personal computing to work \[as do web applications, where you logon and get access to the services associated with your account\]. If I lose my Chrome OS machine, I should be able to go buy a new machine, log in, and within a matter of seconds, get my favorite applications, and the necessary cached data back, including personalization, my background, everything should look similar. We want it to be possible for users to share machines and feel as if the machine belongs to them."

Security. In sharp contrast to traditional desktop operating systems, where applications are fundamentally trusted because they run under the same admin-level privileges as the typical users, Chrome OS utilizes only web applications, which by definition are untrusted. "We run completely inside the browser security model," Pichai explained.

It is real

Google did walk through a demo of actual as-it-is-at-the-moment Chrome OS code during the announcement last week. This wasn't a scripted Director demo or whatever--cue nightmare memories of Microsoft's faked PDC 2003 "Longhorn" demos for an example of why that's important--it was actual code. And as you might expect, given that this was the first public appearance of Chrome OS, it was actually pretty exciting. (In a nice touch, the presentation screens showed during the Chrome OS introduction were actually running on a Chrome OS-based machine, though that wasn't obvious until almost 15 minutes into the presentation.)

As promised, the demo system booted up to a logon prompt in perhaps 4 or 5 seconds, a far cry from 30 to 60 seconds you'll experience on most Mac and Windows systems today. Another three seconds or so after logging on, you'll be running your applications, Google says.

"Hopefully, this is not a surprise to you, but \[Chrome OS\] looks like Chrome," Pichai said. "Internally, we joke that 'Chrome is Chrome OS.' Chrome is the OS for all practical purposes." (Those Google jokesters.) "But there many interesting changes that make it function as an operating system. The advantage to doing it this way is that it's immediately familiar to most users. Almost everyone knows how to use a browser."

It's open source

One important new bit of news from the launch event is that Google is open-sourcing Chrome OS. "As of today, the code will be fully open," Google vice president Sundar Pichai said. "Google developers will be working on the same \[source code\] tree as external developers. Whatever we do will be in the open." This type of development is, of course, familiar territory for those in the Linux camp, but's most certainly not how the two dominant PC OS companies, Microsoft and Apple, develop their products. In fact, for these companies, the source code to their core OS products is considered the crown jewels.

"We are opening up the project a year ahead of release," Pichai said. "A lot of the UI is going to change. We're not fully sure how it's going to turn out." Google is also releasing its design documents, so anyone can see where Chrome OS is heading.

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