Google Spills Chrome OS’ Guts

Google on Thursday opened the source code for its fledgling Chrome operating system to developers.

This means “Google developers will be working on the same tree as external developers, and we’re looking forward to working with the open source community,” said Sunder Pichai, vice president of product management at Google.

Netbooks running Chrome OS will hit retail shelves next year in time for the holiday season, Pinchai added. Google is developing specifications for hardware and will work with OEMs to ensure they deliver products made to its specs.

The first batch of netbooks next year will be offered as companions to users’ existing PCs and will focus on entertainment, according to Google. “You’ll be able to play videos, play games and read books on them,” Pichai explained. Netbooks with ARM processors or x86 chips will be able to run the Chrome OS, Pichai said.

In addition to opening up the Chrome OS, Google is also opening up all its design documents. “We’re showing you what we’ve built so far and what we’re building next,” said Matthew Papakipos, engineering director for Google Chrome OS.

The Chrome OS is still a work in progress, and it will undergo changes before it is put on devices going to retailers’ shelves, Pichai said. “At this stage, we’re opening up the OS a year ahead of schedule.”

Still, it won’t need a total overhaul. “There are many concepts here which will carry over to the final product,” Pichai explained.

Understanding Chrome’s Glitter

The Chrome OS focuses on three things: Speed, simplicity and security, Pichai said. “We want your Chrome OS device to be like television — you turn it on and you start working,” he explained. Google also wants the device to be fast end to end, so speed in the Chrome browser is important. “The Chrome browser running on the Chrome OS will be even faster than it is now,” Pichai said.

For simplicity, every application in the Chrome OS will be a Web app. Users won’t have to install programs or software or manage updates, as these will all be links.

The Chrome OS will adhere to open standards, so anyone who writes an app for the Web in a browser is writing for Chrome OS, Pichai pointed out. “What we’re trying to offer is a fundamentally different model of computing where you aren’t installing applications or data,” Pichai explained.

The Chrome OS “fits well with ARM’s strategy of enabling Internet everywhere,” Ian Drew, vice president of segment marketing at ARM, told LinuxInsider. “With the rollout of programs like Chrome, Flash Player 10.1 and Mozilla, we have removed the last major barriers for full Internet support on multiple mobile devices.” ARM and Qualcomm are battling Intel in the market for power-saving chips that run Internet-based devices such as smartphones and netbooks. [*Correction – Nov. 20, 2009]

Adobe on Tuesday announced a pre-release beta of Flash Player 10.1, which will enable any device, including many smartphones, to access online video using the same technology. Meanwhile, Mozilla has unveiled versions of Firefox for several mobile platforms.

Don’t Tie Me Down

Google’s totally Web-based approach may stumble over some snags, Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider. “This anticipates a more reliable Web than we have today,” he explained. “Still, you have to start someplace.”

The Chrome OS’ simplicity includes not tying users to any particular hardware or location. “Today I can take any machine and use Gmail or Yahoo Mail,” Pichai said. “We want all of personal computing to work that way.” All data in Chrome OS, including the personalization of users’ desktops, will reside on Google’s servers in the cloud. “If you lose your Chrome OS machine, you can buy a new one and log in and get everything back, including personalization,” Pichai said.

To enhance speed at the back end, Google is using solid state disks, Papakipos said. “Part of why we can boot so quickly using Chrome OS is we’re reading data out of RAM rather than spinning magnetic drives,” he said.

Also, Google has cut out unnecessary features in the operating system. “When you turn on your PC today, the OS still goes out to look for a floppy drive,” Papakipos said. “We’ve cut out all the boot steps we can in the Chrome OS, and we’re working to eliminate the boot loader.”

Google is approaching security in a new way with the Google Chrome OS because all its apps are Web apps. “We can make security a lot better because users won’t load binaries on the system,” Pichai explained. “If there’s an issue, we can fix ourselves with a reboot.”

Chrome OS has other security features that deal with the issue of security on a practical basis. “Exploits happen in the real world,” Papakipos said. “We’re working on a verified boot process for Chrome OS.” In essence, everything in the Chrome OS has a cryptographic signature attached to it that is signed by Google. If any of the bytes fails the cryptographic signature check at boot-up, the system reboots, loading a proper version of the Chrome OS. “You’re reimaging your computer, and we’ve made reimaging your computer easy and transparent,” Papakipos explained.

This reimaging is essentially an update on the thin client concept that Sun Microsystems and Oracle launched a decade ago, Enderle pointed out.

We Are the World

Taking a leaf from Apple’s book, Google is seeking to control the user experience by managing both the hardware and the software. “We care about the end to end experience, so we’re working with key partners to ensure you get better netbooks,” Pichai said. Netbooks running Google Chrome OS will have large keyboards and screens, for example.

Goggle is working closely with OEMs to specify the competence of their hardware products to run the Chrome OS. “For example, we don’t support hard drives, just solid state drives,” Pichai said. “We’ll also specify wireless cards. We want the software to really understand the hardware so it works faster and more securely.”

“This is partially why the iPhone is so successful,” Enderle said. “If you give up control you may lose the customer because of bad quality.”

Google’s taking a big gamble with this approach, but if it wins, it will win big. “When you control both the hardware and software, you have to ask yourself how you will define a PC five years from now and what it will do,” Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, pointed out.

Mobility and the Internet changed things in the past 10 years, and the drivers now are the mobile Internet and Internet ubiquity, McGregor told LinuxInsider. “What’s the function of the PC if all these mobile devices are going to be connected to the Internet? The PC now has to redefine its value against all the mobile devices coming out that are very unique and targeted.”

*ECT News Network editor’s note – Nov. 20, 2009: The original published version of this article incorrectly stated that ARM was battling Intel and Qualcomm in the market for power-saving chips that run Internet-based devices such as smartphones and netbooks. In fact, Qualcomm licenses ARM technology and works closely with ARM in this market, according to Leslie Clavin, a spokesperson for ARM.

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