Most of this article was written on a six-year-old computer running Google’s new Chromium OS.
“Chromium OS” is the open-source version of the new Chrome OS that Google is developing for netbooks, tablets, and other lightweight machines. It’s built from the source code that Google is making widely available, but it runs on standard hardware. Google’s Chrome OS, in contrast, is designed to run on a new generation of stripped-down systems. These systems will probably be missing some of that legacy hardware necessary to run Windows, but will make up for this with a somewhat lower cost, lightning-fast boot times, and even some added security measures that will make them practically virus-proof.
You can download and run Chromium OS today if you know where to find it, but be careful. If you just Google for “chrome OS download,” you’ll probably end up with a modified version of Suse Linux–the “fake Google Chrome OS.” Ironically this will run just fine on most netbooks, but you’ve got to be a Linux master to use it. You can edit files on the Web with Google Docs, or on the local computer with Open Office (which is included), but you need to keep track of where your documents are saved and manually move them back and forth. You can download and install cool programs from Linux software repositories, but there is always a chance that a program that you download might hack your system and steal your data. And you need to remember to run “software update” on a regular basis to install those security patches. In many ways the experience is quite similar to running Microsoft Windows or MacOS.
In contrast, the real Chromium OS is a completely different approach to operating systems. What you get is a whole lot less than a fine Linux distribution with a bunch of open-source software. Perplexingly, this ends up being a whole lot more useful, user-friendly, and secure.
Think of Chromium OS as a copy of Google’s Chrome browser running on top of a Linux kernel. The version I tested has no window manager (which means no overlapping windows)–instead, the browser’s window expands to fill the computer’s screen. The developer versions require that you log in (although everybody uses the same username and password). The browser then opens to Google’s home page, and you log in to your Google account. To edit a document you just click on “More,” then “Documents,” then edit the document in Google Docs.
There’s not a lot to configure with Chromium OS, and that’s kind of the point. The browser has a little wrench-like icon that lets you change your time zone, or the sensitivity of the touch-pad, or enable tap-to-click. You can connect to a Wi-Fi network, specify a home page (although the default is Google, of course), and you can tell Chromium to save your passwords. You can also delete your cookies, clear your cache, and restore the system to defaults. Bookmarks sync to your Google account. And that’s pretty much it, at least for now.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.