Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's the Deal With Google's Chrome OS?

Hey friends! Welcome to another installment of Andrew Tells You About Technology You Probably Might Should Know About. Today's installment: Google's forthcoming Chrome OS!

When you boot up your computer, what is almost always the first program you launch after you get to the desktop? If you said "my Web browser," you just gave me the answer I wanted you to give to demonstrate my point!

As the Internet has grown, it has become more and more capable - what once enabled people to communicate via email, chat and Web pages now allows them to create, save and store all kinds of files, get all of your news, and live a sometimes-distressing amount of your social life.

The Internet has become so powerful and pervasive that, theoretically, your computer doesn't even need to be able to do anything else anymore - a Web browser can get you everywhere you need to go. This is the thinking that spawned Chrome OS.

What it is

With Chrome OS, Google posits that many computer users don't need the bulk of a traditional operating system like Windows or Mac OS. Instead of slowing your computer down with a bunch of installed junk that users don't need, Chrome OS has just enough underlying software to get your computer started, at which point it launches the only program installed - the Google Chrome Web browser.

A slowly but steadily increasing number of people have been using the Chrome Web browser - as of last month, it handled about 9% of all the Internet's Internetting - and for good reason. The browser is simple, clean, and fast, it updates silently, and it's pretty stable. That's what chased me away from Firefox, anyway.

Chrome OS is built on those same principles - it's pretty much just the browser, plus all the plugins you'll need to look at video, Flash content, PDFs, and other common Internet items.

An OS that's just the browser needs pretty much constant access to the Internet, and Google has tried to compensate for that - anyone who buys a Google Chrome OS netbook also gets two years of access to Verizon's 3G data network for free. You only get 100 megabytes of bandwidth a month by default, but you can upgrade the plan as needed. It should serve for those emergencies or the rare times when a wi-fi network is out of reach.

Some good ideas

One of the goals Google has for the Chrome OS is instant-on technology - you should never spend more than a couple of seconds waiting on your computer to boot or wake from sleep.

It achieves this via a couple of means: first, the actual operating system is designed to connect to the Internet and run Chrome, and that's it. It's very light, and there's just not that much to load compared to a multi-gigabyte operating system like Windows. Chrome OS is itself based on Linux, a usually free open-source operating system you've heard but probably never used on a computer. Fun fact: Linux is also the core of Google's Android OS, which revisit in the next section.

Second, the Chrome OS is (at least initially) going to be sold only on specifically configured netbooks, and all of these netbooks are to have solid state hard drives (SSDs) installed. If you're unfamiliar with what this means, a quick primer: most hard drives sold in computers today have tiny moving parts in them - one or more spinning magnetic disks, and a small "head" that moves around and reads data from that disk. They're reasonably reliable and quick enough for most purposes, but there are limits to how fast those moving parts can move.

An SSD is more like a USB drive that's connected directly to your motherboard. Removing the moving parts from a hard drive removes a pretty significant bottleneck, and allows for much better performance and reliability. The cost per gigabyte is currently much higher in SSDs, but it's coming down all the time, and within the next few years you'll see SSDs replacing hard drives in most computers that come to market.

Anyway! Back to Chrome OS!

Google is also encouraging the development of apps that work within a browser window - just as you can do word processing in Google Docs instead of Word and check your email using Gmail instead of Outlook, Google envisions a future where people can edit video and pictures, listen to music, and do basically everything on the Internet instead of using programs installed on your computer. It's an ambitious vision and we're not quite there yet, but that does seem to be the way the wind is blowing these days.

Hurdles to jump

The first hurdle is the fact that we just aren't there yet - Google Docs is not a suitable replacement for Word for anyone but the very lightest users, video editing can't really be done online yet, and people (and companies!) are still slowly warming up to the idea of keeping all of their data "in the cloud" on someone else's server, rather than stored locally on their computers.

Another thing that Google needs to do for Chrome OS to succeed is convince the public to buy netbooks again. The small, cheap notebooks were all the rage in 2007 and 2008, but consumer satisfaction with them was notoriously poor. This stemmed from everything from poor performance to their shoddy build quality to the crappy, cut-rate versions of Windows they ran. Convincing people to buy a netbook rather than, say, an iPad is going to be a tall order in 2011.

The last problem may be the biggest roadblock for Chrome OS's success: Google already has a pretty decent mobile operating system that's making a lot of noise, and it's called Android.

When Chrome OS was announced, Android was in the midst of a very shaky infancy. Since then, it has gone on to pose a real threat to Apple's iOS dominance, and it's already poised to expand to tablet PCs and netbooks going forward. With Android doing so well, does it make sense to introduce another competitor and risk cannibalizing your own sales?


The only thing I can say for sure right now is that it's entirely too early to predict what Chrome OS is going to do. Tech journalists have only gotten their very first hands-on look at the new OS from Google (reviews are tentatively positive but decidedly mixed) and we're still months from any sort of public release.

What's becoming clear is that competitors are definitely trying to challenge Microsoft's operating system dominance. Firefox and later Chrome broke Internet Explorer's monopoly on the Web browser market, so why shouldn't someone be able to do the same thing with a well-designed operating system? All of these companies - Apple, Google, and yes, Microsoft - are trying to be the Microsoft of the next decade. More than anything, it'll be interesting to see what everyone comes up with.