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The Browser Takes All

Google’s new computer throws out everything but the Web.
December 9, 2010

This week, Google unveiled a computer like no other: the Cr-48, a notebook that relies on the Web for all its software applications. Yet the Web search giant thinks the notebook can compete with computers that run all kinds of installed software.

Beyond browsing: Google thinks the Cr-48, which relies on the Web for all its software applications, can compete with conventional laptop computers.

The matte black Cr-48 won’t be sold to the public, but thousands are being sent to consumers and businesses who have volunteered to test it. It introduces a new kind of operating system, called Chrome OS, that turns to the Web for almost everything. Google is pitching Chrome OS as its vision for a new form of computing—one that shifts the data, functionality and almost everything else you would expect from your desktop computer into the cloud. Chrome OS will get its biggest test when Acer and Samsung start selling notebook computers customized to run the software in mid-2011.

Google’s Chrome OS vision is perhaps best understood by examining the differences between Chrome OS and the operating systems commonly used today, says Sundar Pichai, the vice president of product management for Chrome OS (and the related Chrome Web browser). Those differences come from a single design decision about the relationship between a person and his computer, Pichai says.

“Operating systems today are centered on the idea that applications can be trusted to modify the system, and that users can be trusted to install applications that are trustworthy,” he says, “it turns out those are bad assumptions.”

In contrast, Chrome OS assumes that applications and users can’t be trusted. And it has just one application: the browser. “There’s a cascade of things that happen when you make this core assumption,” says Linus Upson, a Google VP of engineering working on the project, from making it easier to protect against malware, to reducing the need for users to act as administrator for their own system.

Chrome OS—based on a pared-down version of the Linux operating system—automatically downloads and installs its own updates. Any data downloaded in the course of using the Web is kept carefully in a secure place, separate from the OS.

Google still needs to prove that the simplicity of Chrome OS doesn’t undo its usefulness. To this end, it has built a Web “app store” to encourage developers to create Web-based software that will match the diversity and functionality of the applications that can be installed on the hard drive of a Windows or Mac computer. These apps are basically advanced websites that offer similar functionality to desktop apps software.

Users of Chrome OS—as well as the Chrome browser on a conventional computer—can search or browse the Chrome Web Store and with a single click install apps. The store has far fewer software applications than are available for a conventional machine. But some Chrome apps can compete with more traditional, desktop applications, for example a Photoshop-like image editor, Aviary.

Pichai says the fact the app store takes payments—either one off or subscriptions—should stimulate the creation of apps that otherwise wouldn’t exist because developers couldn’t make them profitable. “I wouldn’t find a random game on a website and give them my credit card details to pay $3.99. It’s not worth the time or the risk.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given Google’s claimed commitment to the open Web, Google’s app store is not compatible with other Web browsers. But it is possible to easily modify apps developed for Chrome’s store for other “modern” browsers, says Pichai, since they use HTML5 and other web standards designed to enable advanced functionality, including working while offline. The latest versions of Internet Explorer, and other browsers, support those standards. However some features of Chrome apps remain exclusive to Chrome, such as 3-D effects that tap into a machine’s graphics processor. “We need to make sure that apps can do everything that apps can do on the desktop today,” Pichai explains. He expects other browsers to catch up as HTML5 and other new Web standards become more common.

Google has some way to go to prove that Chrome OS, and its Web app store, can compete with existing personal computers and software, says Michael Gartenberg, a research director at Gartner specializing in consumer technology. “The store today feels unfinished and even a little confused—some things appear to be just bookmarks while others are full apps.”

Google hopes Web developers will soon change that, and also looks to be investigating ways to offer access to existing desktop apps on Chrome OS, says Glenn Weinstein, CTO of cloud app provider Appirio, whose employees will soon start using Cr-48s for work. Apporio notes that Citrix has developed a Chrome OS version of its widely-used software that allows desktop applications to be hosted on a server for access through a Web browser. “I think we’ll see other major application providers appear that have worked with Google on this,” he adds.

Whether this adds up to a product that can succeed will be easier to judge after Google’s hardware partners, Acer and Samsung, unveil their devices, and pricing for those devices, next year, says Gartenberg. He expects the hardware to be low cost, but points out that Google’s decision to bundle Chrome notebooks with 100 megabytes of “free” 3G data every month from Verizon for two years will work against that. “I’m paying for that data one way or the other,” says Gartenberg.

With a reliance on constant connectivity and no hard drive, a Chrome notebook could be described as an overgrown smart phone with a keyboard. That raises the question of whether Chrome OS could appear on phones and tablet devices, competing with Google’s other operating system, Android, which is developed by a separate team within the company.

“As a core experience Chrome OS lends itself to a number of form factors,” acknowledges Pichai, “although the work needed to offer it on a touch interface is not done yet.” For now Chrome OS is about introducing users and developers to a completely different kind of computing, he says. “It’s not good to have just one model.”

This choice could confuse some consumers, says Gartenberg, and that could hinder efforts to sell a radical new product. “Eventually they will have to figure out why these two things need to both exist and tell a cohesive story,” he says.

Google’s vision has momentum, though. Earlier this year a survey of over 900 tech experts on the Internet’s future by the Pew Internet Project found that a clear majority thought cloud computing will become more dominant than the desktop in the next decade. “Several respondents to the survey mentioned the Chrome OS as an example, and they saw such a method as being a primary interface to nearly all small, smart devices,” says Janna Anderson at Elon University, who coordinated the report.

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