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Chrome OS? Solid Gold OS

Google recently released the source code for their upcoming operating system, Chrome OS. Many who tried it have felt that it leaves a lot to be desired. So, is their head in the clouds, or does it actually deliver what was promised?

The source code for Google’s new Chrome OS (and therefore “Chromium” OS) was released this past week with little fanfare on their behalf.

What they may have lacked in enthusiasm however, appears to have been well and truly made up for by the rest of the community. Chrome OS has been the hottest topic on the Internet of late. So what’s it all about?

When Chrome OS was first announced, yours truly pondered what this might mean for the Linux world. Now, with the project officially released to the world, Joe Brockmeier has taken a closer look.

Launch, What Launch?

Google makes great products, it’s why they have become such a force in the computer industry. It was disappointing for many then, when they first got a taste of their much anticipated operating system. Not only was there no flashy new product ready to install on a user’s desktop, there wasn’t even a prepared version at all. No, instead (in true open source fashion) Google posted some instructions on how to build it manually.

Others have become even more disheartened to discover that it’s not flash (although it does include Flash), that it doesn’t run local applications, and that it’s tied into Google’s networked services. One has to wonder, what were they expecting?

Perhaps the media has some part to blame with stories circulating proclaiming “Google Chrome OS To Launch Within A Week.” This made it sound like a complete, polished product would be available. Expectations were running high:

“Having a robust set of functioning drivers is extremely important to Chrome OS’s success. People will want to download this to whatever computer they use and have it just work.”

Nothing, it turns out, could have been further from the truth. In fact, it’s almost comical that the release was the exact opposite. No loud noises, little fanfare, just a wiki page with a set of build instructions. Thanks for coming.

Hold Your Horses

Hang on a moment though, let’s take a step back. When Chrome OS was announced, Google made its plans clear:

“We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web.”

Being able to play with a build of Chromium OS under a virtual machine, one can see that the OS is certainly fast and lightweight. It starts up from boot to graphical login screen in just three seconds. Tick and tick.

After logging in with Gmail account credentials and waiting a few seconds more, the system presents a full screen version of Chrome, Google’s browser (well, Chromium actually). Yes, the web was there in just a few seconds. Tick.

The user interface is essentially, one full screen version of Chrome. There are some almost hidden extras however, such as the options menu, a network manager and battery information, all in the top right hand corner. Minimal interface? Sure thing. Tick.

Given that the system only offers interaction with the Internet, the last point is definitely a given.

Ignoring all of the hype and expectations people have built up over time, Chromium OS is looking pretty good even at this early stage. Think about its design goals. Now, isn’t that exactly what Google has delivered?

Essentially it’s just an operating system built on Google’s web browser, Chrome (hence the name). One might think of it as a personal kiosk machine that gets a user online with access to their data, quickly (so long as its with Google, for now).

This is exactly what Google originally announced:

“The software architecture is simple — Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel. For application developers, the web is the platform.”

It doesn’t get much more simple than that.

chromium-os-desktop.png

Full Steam Ahead

So the current state of Chromium OS doesn’t run on any computer and it doesn’t do a whole lot more more than boot quickly and throw up a full screen web browser. Nevertheless, it has already achieved many of its original goals and is staying true to its purpose; getting users online quickly.

The aim for Google, is to have official Chrome OS computers in the marketplace, which are designed specifically to run Chrome OS (the real Chrome OS, that is).

As I wrote in my original article:

“Think of Chrome OS as an appliance. It’s not going to be your every day running operating system where you sit down and do some video editing, for example. It’s a special, customized operating system specifically designed to live on the net and run everything Google. Sure, it might move over to the desktop at some point but for now at least, it’s focus is on lightweight machines and on-line applications.”

Now, isn’t that exactly what Google is on track to deliver?

Chrome OS is certainly not for everybody, and it never will be. It’s not built to run local applications, in fact, it’s built for the exact opposite of that. Expecting a full blown Linux desktop out of Chrome OS is insane – it was never meant to be that.

So, with all the disappointed punters out there, should it have been released this early? Certainly. Releasing the source code for Chrome OS sooner rather than later is a good thing for Google. It will help the product to mature and to develop at a more rapid pace. It also helps prepare the market for when the real Chrome OS appliances hit, providing a good understanding of what the OS will do. You could say, it’s actually helping to lower expectations.

If everything goes to plan, 2010 should see the release of official Google products in a store near you.

What’s The Attraction?

Google makes money via their online products and they need users to continue using them. An official operating system that gets the user online and with access to all their data quickly, is exactly what Google needs.

Would anyone want to use it though? Well, sure. There is a whole new generation of users who have never used a Windows box, let alone Microsoft Office. Users who aren’t tied into specific proprietary software and who are happy to try different things. For over 10 years already we have been putting our email online rather than using local programs.

Today, users live their entire lives online. They browse the net, use webmail, share photos on Flickr, connect on Facebook, handle finances with Internet banking, do their shopping, watch videos, chat and even make phone calls, all online. For a majority of the everyday tasks they perform, a browser is all they need.

Netbooks have become extremely popular over the last few years. They aren’t powerhouse computers, so what do users want out of a netbook and would Chrome OS suffice? Quick easy access to the Internet. Done. Be able to read emails. Done. Read, create, share documents. Done. Web 2.0, Facebook. Done. YouTube? Done (of course!).

If you’re using the web for your mail and open file formats for your data, what need do you have for Microsoft Windows and Office? None, that’s what. Google knows it, and they also know that if they can make it easier for you to use their products, it’s win-win.

This is why Chrome OS makes sense.

It’s not just individuals who might benefit from Chrome OS, however. Businesses, and even Governments, are switching to the cloud for simpler, cheaper distribution of IT services.

Over two years ago, Macquarie University in Sydney joined scores of other educational institutions around the world in providing Google accounts to their students.

Less than a month ago, the Los Angeles City Council outsourced its email system to Google for over 30,000 employees.

Now, imagine how easy it would be for the L.A. City Council to provide every employee with a computer to access their data. All they would need to do is purchase official Google Chrome OS appliances and they’re good to go. Travelling on the road? Pull out your Chrome appliance and have instant access to everything. Now that has got to be attractive.

This is where Chrome OS differs from other projects and indeed Chromium OS itself – it’s all about the appliance. Chrome OS is unlikely to be a distribution users will want to install on their home machines (and might not even be an option), what would be the point? Current operating systems have web browsers, don’t they?

Chrome OS is not about replacing your desktop, it’s about side-stepping it. Will you be able to edit your high definition videos online? Not any time soon, that’s for sure. There are still things for which users need their desktop.

Scared?

So Google might not yet be “evil”, but they are still a company and they are still driven by profit. The problem with Google is that they simply make great products. Can we trust Google long term? Maybe not, but once the world is freed from vendor lock-in its people can go wherever they like. Currently businesses have little choice but to stick with Microsoft. Google offers them a way out, and many are taking it.

The fact that Google competes on great products is a great thing. It’s the exact opposite of the “vendor lock-in” model which Microsoft employs. The world has been crying out for freedom from vendor lock-in for a long time, and finally, with the help of giants like Google (who only serve their own interests, of course) we are well on track for that to happen.

Can we trust the cloud? Not really, not like you can a system under your own control. However, do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Don’t forget that no-one’s forcing anyone to use Chrome OS, it’s just another option. For those who are happy using Google and their products, Chrome OS a the logical choice. For others, the fact that it’s open source will no-doubt mean various derivatives. “Firefox OS” anyone?

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