In Web parlance, “chrome” is the part of the browser that surrounds the page: the address bar, the “Back” button, and those all-important bookmarks. Chrome is also the name of the Web browser that Google introduced back in September 2008, and–adding to the confusion–Chrome OS is the name of a new operating system that Google announced in July 2009 and expects to ship later this year.
The naming scheme is no accident. It reflects Google’s ambition to create an operating system that is all but indistinguishable from the browser. Gone will be the normal files, directories, and applications. Instead, Chrome OS will put Google’s cloud computing infrastructure–services and applications delivered over the Internet from its vast array of servers–at the heart of practically everything you do. Within a few years, Chrome OS could become the planet’s simplest, fastest, and safest environment for personal computing. But there’s a catch: it will also make Google the gatekeeper of your personal information. It could let Google delve further into your data to make its online advertising business more profitable than ever.
Chrome OS represents a radical new direction for computers. Today’s major operating systems–Windows, Mac OS, and Linux–are all based on the 1980s model of the workstation. They’re designed to run on powerful hardware, storing all the user’s data and programs on a nearby hard drive. Even the Web, as invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, was merely an extension of this computing model–a better tool for finding data on the network and bringing it to your computer. But people don’t use their computers that way anymore. At least, not people running popular Internet applications like Facebook, Gmail, and YouTube. When you use these applications, your data is stored in some distant data center–it’s crunched in the cloud, and only copied to your computer for viewing.
You can download Chrome the browser and run it on Mac, Windows, and Linux operating systems–and if you do, you’ll find that it’s noticeably faster than Apple’s Safari, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, or Mozilla Firefox. Chrome also has less “chrome” than those browsers–no thick borders, no button bars or status lines. Google says that its vision is for the browser to get out of the way so that you can get closer to your data.
Chrome OS extends this strategy. It will be a Web browser running on top of a hardware-controlling Linux kernel, and not a whole lot else. Chrome OS should take up less than a gigabyte of your computer’s hard drive, and the operating system will boot in seconds. It won’t have a “Start” button–it will just have the Google home page, with links to your favorite Internet applications. Panels will appear on the side of the main window when you connect the laptop to your digital camera or when you find a new wireless network.
The minimalist design makes Chrome OS ideal for netbook computers that have modest memory and processing power. Several netbooks already ship with lightweight browser-only operating systems that users can run as an alternative to Windows. Chrome OS is similar, but it will be tightly integrated with Google’s cloud-based services. After you log in to Chrome OS with your Google username and password, Google Docs will be there to let you edit and store documents, and Gmail will take care of your e-mail.
Today, you can download and run Chromium OS, a proof-of-concept prototype of what Chrome OS might be in a few months. I don’t advise it: Chromium OS is just not ready. But several computer makers, including Samsung and Acer, have announced plans for Chrome-powered netbooks, and Google may yet deliver a Chrome OS-powered netbook computer that’s built, like the Nexus One cell phone, to the company’s own hardware specifications.
Google’s engineers have explained that Chrome OS will use your computer’s hard drive as a cache, making copies of whatever you’re working on so that you won’t burn up your netbook’s wireless data plan (or your batteries). All that personal data will be encrypted, so you won’t need to worry if you happen to lose the machine. And if for some reason your computer gets corrupted–perhaps by a virus–you’ll be able to wipe it and start over without losing any work at all, since your data is stored in the cloud.