Chrome is Coming!

By Jason Griffey |

This past Thursday, Google announced its next large software project, currently named Chrome OS. The announcement came in the form of a press conference and a question and answer session that included not only the lead engineers on the project, but Sergey Brinn himself. This is not to be confused with their Chrome browser, a successful project in its own right, rather it is a new operating system, designed by Google and focused around the Chrome browser. Yes, that's a little confusing. Let's see if we can lay out what Google is doing, and make some sense of it for those who didn't watch the announcement. First up, a short video produced by Google that explains Chrome OS:

Google Chrome OS is built on top of a linux core, but is significantly different than any other operating system in use today. Here are three things that make it unique:

  • It is designed to use as little local storage as possible (in fact, aside from cookies, caching, and other incidental files, there is no local storage)
  • It's designed only for flash storage (no mechanical or spinning drives supported)
  • The big concept - nothing lives outside the browser. The system boots incredibly fast--on a demo netbook it goes from dead to login in under 10 seconds, and is usable just a couple of second after login. It boots you directly into the central interface for the OS, the Chrome browser.

Within the browser, you can treat certain web content as if it were an application, making it stand out from the generic web-tabs. By default, the OS treats Gmail and Google Calendar as applications, and you can bet that it will do the same with all components of the Google App suite. During the announcement, they took great care to note that the functionality isn't going to be limited to just Google Apps. Indeed, during the demo they showed what would happen if you clicked on an Excel file from an email. It opened in a Microsoft Office online tab, more or less just as one would expect if you had Office installed locally.

There are a ton of assumptions underlying the OS. The most significant is the idea that we will now have the ability to do all of our work online in the browser. With the rise of AJAX functionality, web based applications have become incredibly responsive, but HTML5 and CSS3 are going to make AJAX look primitive. Chrome OS (and more to the point, the underlying Chrome browser) will fully support HTML5, and Google is betting on the next stage of computing being one where we all live happily in the cloud, using the browser as our one and only interface to the rest of the computing world.

This announcement didn't cover what hardware will be running this OS, although Google's reps were clear that they are talking with hardware OEMs now, and expect Chrome OS to launch on netbook-like systems and other low cost portable computers. We can expect to see actual hardware this time next year, but if you want to see and play with Chrome OS now, you can...for free! The Google team announced that the entire operating system will be open source, and provided the code to the world during the announcement. It took less than a day for someone to download and make available virtual machines of the OS for a number of systems, but for our free version, you can download and install VirtualBox by Sun. Once you've done that, head over to GDGT and grab the virtual machine image provided. After that, you can follow this set of install instructions, and have your own copy of Chrome OS running inside a virtual machine in a matter of a few minutes.

I did just that on Friday, and took some time to poke around the system. It's fast, but it's nearly impossible to accurately judge speeds while running in a virtual machine, and overall I just don't think that you get a true representation of how it's going to run, especially on hardware that was designed from the ground up to run this system. Google said that they don't actually expect this OS and hardware built around it to be a primary computing platform for users for some time, but for a secondary system, for a travel laptop or for a commuting device, this could get very interesting very quickly.

If you've made it this far, you're probably interested in the rest of the story. Here's the video from Thursday's announcement:

I'm excited about this, but have a huge number of questions. The big one is this: If Google already has a popular operating system that's being loaded onto netbooks(Android), why are they going to move into competition with themselves? I'm not sure, but I'm looking forward to finding out what they've got up their sleeves.