Google's Chrome OS: Tomorrow's Desktop Today?

Sometime in 2010, Google will release Chrome OS, its take on a netbook operating system. It will be far more than just that though. It's an entirely new take on the desktop operating system. While a final version is still months away from release there's already enough of Chrome available that we can begin to see what it's going to look like.

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For starters, Chrome OS is Linux. To be exact, it owes a lot of its genes to Ubuntu. But, that's all under the surface. You won't need to know a shell command from the GNOME desktop to use it. As a matter of fact, you won't need to know anything about the traditional Linux desktops -- KDE or GNOME -- either. Chrome OS's interface is Google's Chrome browser. If you can use a Web browser, you'll be able to use Chrome OS.

That's not the case now. Today, you have two choices if you want to try Chrome OS. The first is to build it yourself using Google's instructions. While this is trivial enough for an expert Linux user, it's not for anyone else. The easier way to give it a try is to visit Chrome OS Blog, a fan site for Chrome OS that features frequent builds of Chrome OS that you can either run off a USB stick or as a virtual machine using Sun's VirtualBox.

Either way, you should keep in mind that you're working with a sketch of an operating system. This is no way, shape, or form an operating system that's ready for prime-time yet. Between it, and recent public comments from Matthew Papakipos, Chrome OS' engineering director, you can see where Google is heading with its netbook operating system.

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One of the first things that struck me about this new operating system is that Chrome OS isn't a Windows replacement. It's a Windows alternative.

You won't be able to run Photoshop, Gimp, or other heavy duty programs on it. Or, rather, since it's Linux I'm sure someone will work out a way to do it, but that's not, in big capital letters, the point. The point isn't to run normal desktop applications on top of it, the point is to run Web-enabled applications.

So, for example, you can forget about running Microsoft Office or OpenOffice on Chrome OS. Google Docs, or other Web-based office software like Zoho, will be what you use for office software.

In short, if you can run it off the Web, you should be able to use it on a Chrome OS PC. If it's a traditional desktop application, even if it's Linux based, you won't be able to run it. You also won't be able to run Android-specific applications on it (Android is Google's smartphone operating system.) Chrome OS doesn't even support the Dalvik runtime program that lets developers run Android applications on other operating systems. At some time in the future that may change, but for now it's Chrome for netbooks, Android for smartphones and the two don't meet.

Although this is subject to change, there are currently two ways to get to applications. The first is to show Web applications in individual tabs, while the other is to show multiple Chrome browser windows and allow you to move applications between Chrome browser windows. To some extent this reflects the different kinds of applications: programs that you expect to run in a Web browser window and those that you expect to run as standalone programs. Google is working on erasing the differences between them so that the Web browser interface becomes the universal interface to all applications and Web pages.

That doesn't mean that you won't be able to run serious business applications from Chrome OS. You will. They'll just be need to be SaaS (Software as a Service) programs like SAP's Business byDesign, SugarCRM, or Salesforce.

You won't, however, need to be tied to the Internet at all times to use Chrome OS or Web-based applications. Chrome OS uses Google Gears to keep frequently used applications and their data on your netbook. Gears works by keeping a cached copy of your programs and data on your local drive. As far the user is concerned this is all invisible. If, for example, you need to edit a document and you're offline but it's available in Gear's cached data, you'll get to it just as if you were online. No fuss, no muss.

You also won't need to be on the Internet to view or play some media files. We already know that Chrome OS will be able to read Adobe PDF files and play Adobe Flash videos. Now, we know that Google is integrating a media player into Chrome OS that will play at least MP3 music files. It will surely play other media file types as well, but exactly what those will be we don't know yet. We do know that you won't need to be on the Internet to play them. So, for example, if you have an MP4 movie on a USB stick, you'll be able to watch it even if you're not online. Again, the intent isn't to have you click on a movie file and have a media player pop-up to play it. Instead, the movie will start playing in a browser window. Chrome OS is all about integrating everything into the Web browser experience.

That includes, for better or worse, the security model as well. While Google has gone out of its way to harden the Chrome OS against attackers, it has an Achilles' heel: for now it relies on a Google SSO (single sign on) login/password as the master key to both the operating system and to all your data. This really needs to be fixed before I, for one, will be able to trust it with any important work.

Next page: Chrome OS Today

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