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Less Is More in Google's OS

Chrome OS is ridiculously simple–and that’s why you’ll love it.

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.

The power of this operating system comes from fact that you can’t download and install software. Other than the Web browser, anything that you might want to run has to be run out there on the Internet, ideally from Google’s cloud. For example, I clicked on a Web page containing a link to a PDF, and Chromium showed me the PDF’s contents by running it through Google Docs. I tried looking at my bookmarks, and they were all there–synched through my Google account. Even a YouTube video worked, although it was kind of slow on this old system.

What’s really revolutionary about Chrome is the way the operating system will secure and update itself. According to a video posted on the Google website by Google security engineer Will Drewry, Google knows in advance every application that will be run inside the Chrome OS. “We can secure them appropriately. Everything else is a web app.”

This means that things like Facebook, YouTube, and Google Calendar will run just fine. So will Quicken–provided that you are using the Web-based version rather than the one you download and install.

Of course even the rather small set of software installed on the netbook will need to be updated from time to time. When that happens, Chrome OS will actually create a second bootable copy of the operating system on the computer’s disk. Chrome OS will try to run this second copy the next time it boots. If the second copy works, it will become the primary copy. If it fails, the netbook will notice that the second copy didn’t work, it will report this back to Google, wipe the second copy, and try again. This is the same kind of technology that Google perfected for updating Windows-based helper apps like Google Toolbar and Google Desktop Search.

User data will be kept encrypted in a second partition on the netbook. If for some reason the netbook really won’t reboot, it will be possible to create a USB drive that will wipe the operating system and reload it with a fresh version–but leave the user’s personalized files intact. (Chrome OS will almost certainly support some kind of offline access to user data, probably using the “Google Gears” system that can be used now to provide offline access to Gmail or Google Reader when using Firefox, Internet Explorer, or the Chrome browser.

Although you can download and run Chromium OS now, I don’t recommend it. It’s hard to find reliable distributions of Chromium online (I tried several before settling on the one available at chromeos.hexxeh.net), the hardware integration is weak, and the user interface is really not finished. (For an idea of where Google is heading, check out this video by “Glen” at Google, or look at these Chrome OS tablet mock-ups.)

Even so, Chrome OS has big potential, and it could fundamentally change the way many of us interact with computers–so stay tuned.

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