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Google Gives a First Look at the Chrome OS

The company unveils the technical details of its operating system.

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.

Operating browser: The user interface of Google’s Chrome operating system, demonstrated in public for the first time on Thursday, is designed to feel exactly like a browser. The company says the operating system will make it easy for users to discover new Web applications and store their favorites through an application menu, shown above.

Pichai said that Google plans to launch the first devices running Chrome OS by next year’s holiday season. The operating system won’t be available for download, however. Because of its tight integration between software and hardware, users will have to buy a Chrome device from one of Google’s partners in order to use it. Google plans to give partners strict hardware requirements for the devices, specifying particular wireless cards and other components.

Developers interested in testing and debugging the system could run it today in a virtual machine.

Initially, Pichai said, Google is focused on “netbook-like devices” and expects that most of its target market will also have a desktop machine at home for applications that might not be available online or too processor-intensive to run, such as Photoshop. The Chrome OS is not intended for running without an Internet connection, but will have some offline capabilities. It will be able to display books or play media loaded from an external device, and it will be able to run Web applications that take advantage of the offline capabilities of new Web standards.

Though Google’s Chrome browser hasn’t yet taken over the marketplace, the operating system could stand a better chance, says James Staten, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. While users have to choose to download and use the browser, they might get the operating system by default in devices such as netbooks, and Staten believes that Google is counting on this. The key will be to make users happy enough with Chrome that they keep the software.

The strategy is a bit risky, Staten says, pointing out that though some netbook manufacturers have offered Linux-based operating systems by default, “there’s been a heavy preference for swapping to Windows.” Google hopes that users will want to use Google services such as Docs, Maps, and Gmail, and thus will like the integration that the Chrome operating system provides, he says.

To have a truly successful Web operating system, Google will have to make sure that users are satisfied that their data is consistent, available, and secure, says Amin Vahdat, a professor of computer science at the University of California, San Diego, who was one of the researchers to first look into the merits and challenges of such a system.

Google’s resources and many data centers, combined with today’s increasing bandwidth, make it easier to keep data available, but the problem hasn’t been completely solved. As far as security in the cloud, Vahdat says, “with services like Gmail and Google Docs, Google has demonstrated that for certain applications, people and even companies are willing to give up a little control and potentially security in exchange for the convenience that its model provides.”

Though he thinks now is the right time to launch a commercial Web operating system, Vahdat adds that adoption won’t happen overnight. He says Google is “laying the seeds now for something that could become widespread over the next three to five years.”

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