Google gave the first demonstration of its Chrome operating system today, at the same time opening the source code to the public. The company highlighted features that have grown out of what vice president of product management Sundar Pichai called “a fundamentally different model of computing.” Unlike other operating systems, which merely incorporate the Internet, Chrome is completely focused on it.
The Chrome OS is based so aggressively on the Internet that devices running it will not even have hard drives, Pichai said, emphasizing that “every app is a Web app.” All data will be stored in the cloud, and every application will be accessed through the Chrome browser. Because of this, he added, users will never have to install software or manage updates on the device.
The user interface closely resembles the Chrome browser. When the user opens applications, they appear as tabbed windows across the top of the screen. Users can stick their favorite applications to the desktop with one click, creating permanent tabs for them.
Pichai coyly demonstrated the way the Chrome OS can deal with competitors’ file formats. He inserted a USB drive into a laptop running Chrome OS, launching a window that showed that the device contained several Microsoft Excel files. When he clicked on one of the files, the system automatically pulled up the Windows Live Web-based version of Excel, opening the file inside.
“It turns out that Microsoft launched a killer app for Chrome OS,” Pichai said, adding that anyone who writes a Web application is writing an application for Chrome by default.
The effect, Pichai hopes, is “speed, simplicity, and security.” Today’s version of the operating system can boot up in seven seconds and open a Web application in an additional three, he said. Google engineers are working to make those times shorter.
The implications of the Web-focused design were spelled out more fully by Matthew Papakipos, engineering director for Chrome OS. Part of the security scheme for Chrome is that it’s hard to make any unauthorized changes to the system, he explained. The root filesystem, which stores the core files needed to make software run, is stored in a read-only format. On top of that, every time the user boots the machine, Chrome OS verifies cryptographic signatures that ensure that the operating system software is properly updated, and matches the build Google has approved.
If the system fails any of these checks, the operating system automatically launches into a recovery procedure and reinstalls the correct version of Chrome, Papakipos said. Normally, reinstalling an operating system is a painful process because of the effect that has on the user’s data, settings, and applications. In the case of Chrome, he noted, all of that information will remain unaffected in the cloud.
Some data, such as Wi-Fi settings, is cached on the machine, but Papakipos said this is only to make the system work faster. The data is always synced back to the cloud. The vision, he added, is that a user could eventually get a new device, log in, and find everything running just as it had before, with all the settings still in place.