When I saw this come across my inbox a bit ago, I first thought this was a late-night prank being played on me. But as it turns out, it’s true: late this evening Google confirmed that they’re working on their own operating system for netbooks, tentatively titled Chrome OS.

Rather than rattle off the entire contents of their announcement, let’s hit the high points. Google's Chrome OS is an OS designed to do one thing and one thing only: run Google Chrome. It will be open source, it will run on ARM and x86, it’s Linux based, and it’s not going to launch until the second half of 2010. Taking a page out of Apple’s book, Google is announcing it now as a way to avoid another party spilling the beans before Google is ready.

The single most important thing to take from this announcement right now is just what Chrome OS will do. It won’t run an email client, it won’t run an office suite, and it won’t run games – it will only run Google Chrome. It’s Linux stripped to the bone, left with just enough to run Chrome, and nothing more.

Given this kind of a design, it should come as little surprise then that Chrome itself will be the platform through which additional applications will run. Google has been pushing the web application idea for years – indeed Chrome exists to further drive that goal – but previously this has always required accessing said web applications through a web browser running on a full-fledged OS. If nothing else it is somewhat redundant, not to mention the existence and use of native applications goes against Google’s grand unified vision for everything to be a web application.

Because Chrome will be available on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X, developers will be able to create web applications targeting Chrome, and have it run on computers running any of the above operating systems, along with netbooks running Chrome OS. Along these lines, Google’s own web application suite finally left beta this week, where it’s entirely possible that this was intentional to coincide with the announcement of Chrome OS. Regardless, clearly Google’s application suite is going to be the center point of Chrome OS in order to flesh out the capabilities of Chrome OS-equipped netbooks to what’s expected of a modern computer.

The early announcement leaves plenty of time for more details to be refined and released, but this does raise a few core issues. First and foremost, will developers go with it? One of the most recent parallels to this is the original iPhone launch, where Apple pushed something very similar as the official way for developers to create applications for the iPhone, through creating web applications for Safari. It failed miserably, and a year later a real SDK was released for developers to create native applications. Chrome is better equipped than circa-2007 Safari for these matters (it has local storage capabilities, among other things) but the point still stands. Developers would be limited to AJAXy technologies, with no Adobe Flash to back them up. For the most part, developers would be looking at abilities below what Flash and Java are capable of, so not everyone would necessarily be happy about working with a limited toolkit.

The second issue is how consumers will respond. Chrome has been a tempered success as a browser, it’s bigger impact being to drive everyone else to improve their JavaScript performance. Just being Chrome won’t be enough for Chrome OS to succeed. Meanwhile Google’s web applications have been a smash hit – Gmail is the new standard for webmail interfaces, and other services like Google Docs have been picking up in usage. Google would be relying on their web applications to move consumers (and OEMs) to Chrome OS. But let’s also cut to the chase – this is the computer terminal/thin-client reborn, and history is littered with the carcasses of terminals and terminal-like computers that have died to full-fledged computers when consumers/users rejected going back to terminals. A complete thin-client system may be a gutsy move in modern times, but it's still a significant risk that is not in any way guaranteed to win over users.

And last but not least, we have Microsoft. The web browser replacing the OS has been Microsoft’s worst nightmare for well over a decade now. Much of their late-90’s anti-trust trial focused on how they attempted to drive Netscape out of business for fear of this exact situation arising. Microsoft won’t sit by idle, they will undoubtedly make a big move against Chrome OS, and they will try to not get dragged back in to court in the process. Whether that means just more cheap copies of Windows for netbooks or something more remains to be seen.

Quickly, it should also be noted that this is a separate effort from Google’s existing OS, Android. Android is similar in that it’s a Linux-based OS, but Android is targeted towards phones (even if it can be run on a netbook) and can run additional applications through Java. Chrome OS would be for more powerful devices, and as announced would not be able to run any applications other than AJAXy web applications through Chrome. Along these lines, it should be noted that Chrome OS is going to use a brand new windowing system. It's a bit of a generic statement, but we suspect that Google is going to keep the Linux standard of the X11 windowing system, but write their own window manager and GUI framework. If that is the case, then we won’t be seeing the usual suspects of KDE(Qt) or GNOME(GTK) here. This would also mean that even if Chrome OS could be manipulated in to running other programs, it would not have the ability to run the vast majority of Linux GUI applications without significant modification, as most applications use one of those two frameworks.

As always, we’ll have more on Chrome OS as it develops.

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  • daniel142005 - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    I work for a K-12 school and I think this would actually be useful. Almost everything we use now is web based... email, gradebook, and we are hopefully switching to google docs soon. Having the Chrome OS on our low end machines for teachers that use it for nothing more would be perfect. Of course Flash will have to be supported... but I think Google is smart enough to know that.

    Also, "I don't like the idea that even if I delete something, it will live on for years and could be grabbed by the Government for whatever purposes they may have (yes I know I'm being paranoid, but I prefer to keep personal info personal and out of reach of prying eyes)."

    When you delete something from Google's servers, it is deleted. They have no interest in keeping copies of your files after you have removed them. If you are that worried about personal info or prying eyes, then encrypt it or don't upload it. If you want to stick to this theory then you better unplug your computer from the internet, who knows what Microsoft is able to embed into their OS... they could have a way to access whatever file they want and just leave it inactive... (I doubt it... but you get the idea)
    Reply
  • stromgald30 - Thursday, July 09, 2009 - link

    Google actually doesn't delete stuff that you set for deletion. They have enough space on their servers that they only delete stuff some time after you hit delete. I'm not sure how long that time is, but there is a significant delay from what I've heard from google employees.

    Secondly, your school might be switching over to Google Docs, but any serious user of an office suite, whether it's OpenOffice or MS Office, will tell you that Google Docs is missing alot of functionality. It's a nice start, but not suited for anything other than light use.
    Reply
  • nilepez - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    As a netbook OS, it could work. IMO, that's about all netbooks are good for. If you need to do much more than some light typing or browsing, the small screen and keyboard are too much of a PITA.

    Now will everyone move to web apps? That I don't know. I wouldn't feel comfortable having all my documents in Google's hands. I don't trust Google anymore than I trusted MS in the 90's...and MS didn't have access to my financial and personal info. What's more, even if i did trust google, I don't like the idea that even if I delete something, it will live on for years and could be grabbed by the Government for whatever purposes they may have (yes I know I'm being paranoid, but I prefer to keep personal info personal and out of reach of prying eyes).
    Reply
  • Xenoterranos - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    I was about to post this. Netbooks are basically just thin clients anyway, and they've helped a lot of people realize that A) They don't really need as much computer as they thought they did, and B) Their pictures are safer of Flickr anyway where they won't go *poof* like they did the last time their hard drive died. I know tons of people who use Google Docs specifically for this reason.

    (Mind you, they're latently paranoid, so if you mentioned the whole google=cthulhu thing to them, it'd probably obliterate their world-view.)
    Reply
  • ytoledano1 - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    It lets them feel that even though its small and cheap, it still looks similar to the PC they have at home. Reply
  • prophet001 - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    isn't the end game of this to get their hands deeper into their user's lives and data?
    i'm not getting on the web os bandwagon
    Reply
  • KidneyBean - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    No soup for you!
    -Nazi Soup Guy

    Although I think the writers stole that concept from Milton Friedman's "There's no such thing as a free lunch".
    Reply
  • HavocX - Saturday, July 11, 2009 - link

    You mean Robert Heinlein's? Reply
  • helms - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    If its fast/low resource friendly then it could be used in very old computers e.g. 200mhz with 32mb ram. Then outdated pc's could be turned into internet terminals. Instead of being thrown away as trash. Reply
  • Chadder007 - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    200mhz wouldn't run Javascript efficiently enough on pages either anymore... Reply

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