Google Chrome OS: Evolving the Operating System

“…the operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no web.”
-Sundar Pichai, Google VP Product Management

The Question

Consider that statement. It’s not a bad point. When using your computer, how much time do you spend on the web versus using purely offline software? Maybe that proportion is more reasonable at work, but consider how you use your computer during free time. Think about the way your kids use their laptop; the way the general public use their computers and phones and any web-enabled device. The truth is that most of the functionality of computers has shifted onto the internet. If most people look through their programs nowadays they realize that perhaps the only programs they’re using are the ones that came with Microsoft Office – word processing, spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations. The other program used most often is probably iTunes or some other media player. How many of these can be replaced with free online applications which have equivalent capabilities or even more advanced and useful tools due to their foundation in the internet? Is your entire operating system one of those programs?

The Answer

With the ever-increasing interest in netbooks, the popularity of the iPad and smartphones which use lightweight operating systems; it has become clear that peoples’ priorities have changed when it comes to leisurely computing. We want functionality, sure, but with an emphasis on speed and ease-of-use. Imagine, then, an operating system which runs exclusively on netbooks. An operating system that starts up and is running in a matter of seconds; where the only real program is an internet browser and the functionality is defined by internet-based applications. Imagine that it is open-source (meaning anyone can develop and improve the project) and that the operating system itself is free (meaning the price is defined only by the hardware you’re willing to pay for). This operating system is the Google Chrome OS, due out in the second half of this year (probably towards the very end of it). But let’s talk about Chrome in detail:

  • Speed: Because the Chrome OS is basically entirely internet-based, it’s extremely lightweight and therefore extremely fast. The speed of your computer’s functionality is defined by the speed of your internet connection.
  • Security: You might think that with everything you do on computer occurring on the web you’ll be more vulnerable to viruses, malware, and hackers. That won’t be the case though, as Google is working to make the Chrome OS the safest browser available. The first thing it’ll have going for it is the same thing that keeps Apple’s Mac OSX safe from malicious attacks: it simply will not be as popular as Windows. Hackers and the like are interested in doing as much damage as possible, so there’s just no incentive to write a virus that’ll affect an operating system that doesn’t have the largest market share. But Google isn’t satisfied with trusting hackers and viruses to just ignore their system, in fact the entire security system of the Chrome OS will be based on lack of trust. Chrome won’t trust any of its applications, and they will all run in “sandboxes” – sequestered virtual space which keeps the app from having an effect on other apps, the structure of the OS, or from involving itself with the network. In a way, Chrome won’t even trust itself, in that every time it restarts the OS will analyze its code and if it has been compromised, it has been designed to fix itself. Also, because it is open-source, Google will have countless developers discovering any bugs or flaws, constantly alerting Google to these issues, and finding ways to fix them.
  • Functionality: The biggest qualm probably any user will have about the Chrome OS is the fear that they will lose the core “usability” of their computer. No one would really like to admit to themselves the majority if not nearly all of their computing power is spent on internet usage. And the truth is that we do need the more heavy-duty software every once in awhile: students need to write papers, almost everyone needs to make spreadsheets and presentations. We don’t trust these lightweight user-made apps to handle those important functions for us. But what people often don’t realize is that Google has created web-based application versions of these programs, and in most cases they are just as good and often better than the ones Microsoft has provided us.
  • It’s called Google Docs and it’s sleeker and faster and in lots of ways more useful than Microsoft Office. Because it’s internet based, Google Docs allows you to collaborate on documents in real-time with other people in other offices or other countries instead of constantly making changes and emailing things back in forth or having to share screens. And because it’s from Google, Docs is constantly being improved and updated in response to users’ needs and requests. Not to mention the obvious: Google Docs is much faster than Microsoft Office can ever hope to be. Oh and it’s free, very much anything Microsoft has ever offered.
  • So that’s Chrome’s advantage over Windows, but what about Apple’s OS which also runs on applications and pretty much introduced and popularized the idea? The main difference is Google’s Open Source Philosophy. On Google’s Chrome OS, all web-apps are Chrome Apps. Apple closes off its hardware in two ways: it’s only open to applications written within Apple’s special framework, and it must be approved by Apple and not contradict their interests as a company in any way. Apple has been known to prevent applications from reaching the public because though they would drastically benefit users, they would take profit away from Apple. Consistent with its image as a company, Google prioritizes the users over itself, and any app available on the web is available to someone running Google Chrome OS. This means you have all of Google’s online software capabilites, plus the countless applications designed by users on the web, not to mention the embedded media player Google plans on providing which you can bet will be more open than Apple’s iTunes (Have you ever tried to get a music file into your iTunes that wasn’t bought from Apple or on a burned cd? I wouldn’t expect those issues from Google)
  • Cost: Google plans on providing the Chrome OS for free on dedicated netbooks. That means that how much you spend comes down only to the companies who sell the netbooks. Considering prices now, you might expect at most to spend $300 or $400 dollars for a netbook which comes with Chrome. Basically, it’ll cost you less to have a fully functioning computer than it costs just to buy Windows alone.
  • Conclusions

    Google Chrome OS enabled netbooks will start coming out later this year, and it’s hard not to imagine getting one (if you can stomach the conversion away from your current programs). The Chrome OS will provide in a lightweight package what seems to be missing in devices like the iPad: an actual computer, not just a scaled-up smartphone. The significance of Chrome is that it marks an evolution of computing deeper into the internet. By shifting the major functionality of computers onto the internet connectivity becomes key and collaboration becomes the bedrock of creation. Chrome seems to be in line with the natural, beneficial evolution of technology – faster, cheaper, and more connected. Apple will sell you a product that looks better, costs more, is more stimulating but when it comes down to it, does less because Apple is so obsessed with image that it closes its development process off to the public. Microsoft will sell you a product that does quite a lot but is plagued with problems and is slow both in functionality and adaptability. I’m putting my stock in Google, which as it moves into the field of operating systems, is set to provide users with everything users need and want: a faster operating system, a better operating system, an operating system based on an open platform which is adaptive and ever-expanding, an operating system that costs you nothing at all.

    Chrome OS Announcement:

    Chromium Open Source Project Announcement:

    Google Docs:

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