Google Sets Sights on Chrome-Plated Netbook OS

Nine months after launching the Chrome browser, Google on Tuesday announced plans for a Chrome operating system.

The new OS will be tailored for netbooks. Google has already lined up several OEM partners, and it plans to put the first products out by mid-2010.

Speculation is that Google is targeting Microsoft, whose Windows XP already runs on many notebooks. Linux distros might also be in Google’s crosshairs.

However, issues with privacy, security and marketing could interfere with Google’s ambitions for the Chrome OS.

The Chrome OS Announcement

Google’s plans for the Chrome operating system are outlined on the Chrome blog by senior Google executives Sundar Pichai and Linus Upson.

The operating system is a “natural extension” of the Chrome browser and is designed for Web surfers, they said.

It will run on both x86 and ARM chips.

Getting Into Chrome’s Guts

The Chrome OS will be a fast, lightweight operating system that will be open sourced later this year, Pichai and Upson said on the Chrome blog.

It will sit on top of a Linux kernel and will use a new windowing system, which will probably be developed by Google.

The Web will be the application development platform, and all Web-based applications will automatically work on the Chrome OS, according to Pichai and Upson. Developers will be able to write new applications using Web technologies. These applications will run on Google Chrome OS as well as on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Google declined to elaborate. “We aren’t doing any on-the-record interviews around this announcement, since it’s still very early on in the project and there isn’t much to talk about apart from what is in the blog post,” spokesperson Eitan Bencuya told LinuxInsider.

How About Android?

Consumers may be wondering what will happen to Android, which was launched in November 2007. The operating system can already be found on smartphones, and some netbook makers have expressed interest in using Android as an OS on small laptops.

In the Chrome blog post, Pichai and Upson draw a clear distinction between the Chrome OS and Android: “Google Chrome OS is a new project, separate from Android.”

Android will work on devices ranging from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks, while Google Chrome OS is for Web surfers and will run on computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems.

That explanation may not be of much help.

“There’s going to be a lot of consumer confusion right now, and Google will have to do a lot of marketing and education,” Yankee Group analyst Josh Martin told LinuxInsider.

The trouble is, marketing is Google’s Achilles’ heel, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“Google’s marketing makes Microsoft’s worst days look good,” Enderle told LinuxInsider. “It needs better PR and marketing skills than it has so far demonstrated in order to make this thing a success.”

Dissing the OGs

Google is positioning Chrome OS as its attempt to rethink what operating systems should be.

“The operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no Web,” reads the blog post.

That much Enderle agrees with. “Windows and the Mac OS are based on the model of the ’80s and ’90s, where you have a full-fledged operating system bundled with applications that you sell to customers,” he said.

“The market has moved, and the model we’re using today is much more along the lines of the iPhone and the Google Android phone, where apps are on the Web, they’re thin, inexpensive, and damned near transparent,” added Enderle.

Dangers to Windows and Mac OS?

The Google Chrome OS will be more of a threat to Microsoft and other versions of Linux than to Apple.

Windows is vulnerable because of its outdated approach, noted Enderle.

“Windows 7 is still largely based on this application bundle concept,” he pointed out. “And the migration from Windows XP to Windows 7 is so ugly that lots of people are probably thinking of moving to the Mac, and now they may think about moving to Google instead.”

Windows 7 is scheduled to hit the streets in October.

Linux distributions such as Debian and Ubuntu will suffer, Enderle predicted.

“If Google Chrome OS is successful, it will become the default Linux distribution and will probably take Ubuntu out at the knees,” he said.

However, the Mac OS is less vulnerable.

“Apple has the iPhone, and within maybe 12 months, they could scale up the iPhone concept to embrace the Mac,” Enderle said. “Also, they get a lot of their revenue from hardware, unlike Microsoft.”

Taking out Microsoft won’t be that easy, according to Yankee Group’s Martin.

“They’re the No. 1 provider of operating systems on the desktop, so there’s no way to go but down, but people have been trying for the past two decades to knock them off and haven’t succeeded,” he said.

Safe, Secure and Suckered?

Google is completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates, said Pichai and Upson in the Chrome blog.

That comment aroused skepticism in Randy Abrams, director of technical education at security vendor ESET.

“That’s real good marketing speak, but a general-purpose operating system is designed to run a program,” he told LinuxInsider. “A virus is really a program.”

Google can make the Chrome OS more resilient and more bulletproof, but “I anticipate that when the beta comes out, it’s going to be riddled with vulnerabilities like Swiss cheese,” Abrams said.

Privacy issues may also arise when Google Chrome users work with apps on the Web that are stored on Google’s servers, he added.

“Google doesn’t have a great reputation for privacy,” said Abrams. “They collect a lot of information that’s not known by users and don’t have a good track record of responding to complaints by users.”

For example, Google will reportedly store about 2 percent of all information typed into the Omnibox feature of its Chrome browser, a move that has alarmed Internet privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Also, Abrams said Google ignored an email complaint he sent about how its Blogspot and Blogger services are a haven for hackers.

“They said I have to send them a physical letter or fax them,” he said.

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