Microsoft’s Inaction

Fail to adapt and you’ll usually leave a lane open for a competitor to come in and innovate. Although Microsoft dominates the netbook market, I don’t know a single person who would call using a netbook running Windows 7 a pleasant experience. There’s a ton of disk swapping, applications can take forever to launch and although you can do a lot with a netbook, you typically don’t want to. Microsoft needed to provide a lightweight OS optimized for the netbook experience a couple of years ago. It didn’t. So Google is.

The selling point behind a netbook is that it’s small, cheap and fast enough for browsing the web. The problem is a netbook isn’t fast enough for running the OS that you need to run in order to get access to the web.

Microsoft refused to revamp the OS, so Google decided to put forth an OS based around a web browser.

It’s called the Chrome OS and it’s built off of Intel’s Moblin distribution of Linux. and it's built off of Google's own Linux distribution (ed: sorry for the mixup, Google tells us our earlier Moblin information was incorrect). There’s no conventional desktop, you turn on your Chrome notebook and meet a login window followed by an instance of the Chrome web browser.

Google first announced it almost a year ago, but yesterday it fleshed out additional details about the Chrome OS and the first platform to use it.

Learning from Our Mistakes

There are two things that plague the PC user experience: security and ease of use. If you’re a software vendor, there's a third one too - piracy. When building this new category of lightweight OSes and platforms, most vendors want to be the next Microsoft while avoiding making the same mistakes.

It turns out that you can solve a lot of these problems the same way: by closing off the platform.

Chrome OS is a lot like a modern smartphone OS. The only way you can get applications onto the device is through Google’s Chrome web store, and the only way to get applications into the web store store is to have them approved by Google. Right away that means viruses, malware and things that would hamper the user experience are out. The same approach is taken by Google with Android as well as Apple with iOS.

Google further improves security by sandboxing virtually all aspects of the Chrome user experience. Individual apps don’t have access to one another and everything running on a Chrome OS system is version checked against basic code stored in read only memory to make sure unapproved code isn’t running. If it is, the OS can warn the user and automatically restore itself to a known-good state.

All user files are encrypted on disk and decrypted upon use using your login username and password as a key. As long as no one has access to your password, they can’t access anything you’ve stored on the system.

All OS and app updates are handled automatically by Chrome OS. Updates are installed as they’re available similar to how the Chrome browser works on your PC or Mac today. By default you never have to interact with an update dialog box, updates just happen automatically. Unfortunately as we’ve seen with the Chrome browser, this can result in unexpected instability if Google pushes out an update that wasn’t well tested. But from a security standpoint, having a constantly updated OS and apps ensures that security will never be compromised by a user failing to install the latest updates or patches - a definite problem that faces PC users today and one Google hopes to avoid on systems running Chrome OS.

Although this all sounds very Apple like, Google is committed to offering a free-for-all mode at least on its Chrome development platform. The first Chrome notebook that Google is providing as a part of its pilot program features a physical switch underneath the battery that allows developers or enterprising users to turn off all restrictions and run any code you want on the system. Presumably this includes installing your own OS on the hardware or whatever software you’d like. Assuming this feature makes it to retail Chrome notebooks, you shouldn’t have to worry about jailbreaking your system.

The New World Connectivity Brilliance: Free Cellular Data with Every Chrome Notebook
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  • Matthew31 - Wednesday, December 08, 2010 - link

    Anand,

    It would be interesting to hear your take on how gaming fits into all this. Smartphones already have popular game apps comparable to traditional handhelds (with even better hardware available soon.) Also, games are a major reason to have an atx size computer around.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, December 08, 2010 - link

    Gaming on Chrome OS will likely be limited to casual gaming, similar to what you get on a smartphone today.

    In 3-5 years however you'll easily have more GPU power than an Xbox 360 in a netbook. What happens at that point is really interesting. In a perfect world MS and other publishers would open up their game libraries to all platforms at that point, but that's just wishful thinking.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • MFK - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    That may be true.
    But in the short term, Chrome OS should support OnLive gaming right?
    Reply
  • sviola - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    Add wishful thinking there...Specially if you take into account that games from 10 years ago aren't available to competitor's plataforms. Reply
  • 5150Joker - Wednesday, December 08, 2010 - link

    I've noticed a general trend in the computing industry towards dumbing down end user control and assigning that responsibility to large corporations. Apple started this with iOS which was followed suite in party by Android and Windows Mobile 7. This Chrome OS takes a bigger leap forward with that by decentralizing everything and placing control entirely in their hands. Are consumers today so utterly misinformed that they cannot run a modern PC without compromising security? Since when was consumer notebook security such a huge issue to start with? MS has addressed that problem in part with it's MSE release which is for free, has a small footprint and is free.

    I don't think the Chrome OS is the step in the right direction, rather it is headed towards a "big brother" infrastructure which I dislike very much. Lastly, since it is a cloud based system, having to use traditional wireless phone data plans (along with their measely caps) to access data is a big letdown. Personally, I think it's a far better idea to have one's own hard drive store all their data than to rely on constant net access to get work done than to store potentially sensitive data on the internet.
    Reply
  • cjb110 - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    I'm sorry but you can't blame 'utterly misinformed users' for security issues.
    Not one of the current OS's has a modern design that gives security is due consideration. It's all been bolted on once it became an issue.

    I'm sure Microsoft would agree that in an ideal world, if they could develop the next Windows without time or profit concerns they would end up with something completly different to what we have now.

    Chrome OS has some of that luxury, and is benefiting greatly from hindsight, and based on that and short term usage predicitons Chrome OS could be very succesful. Of course in 10-20 years it might have all changed again...
    Reply
  • hans007 - Wednesday, December 08, 2010 - link

    i dont think the argument that windows 7 is too slow to run on netbooks is particularly great.

    first off chrome notebooks do need to be online most of the time, and they will cost just as much , and probably more given they will have different economies of scale.

    that and by the time chrome OS is out, you'll have bobcat or faster netbook chips making windows 7 run faster.

    why would you buy a chrome OS netbook, if you could buy a windows 7 based bobcat one, that could ALSO runall your other apps, starcraft 2, and have the chrome browser on it.

    other than having to deal with a real OS, it would have almost all the advantages of a chrome OS netbook, and still be able to do things like... oh print to a real printer, play a real game, run real apps and backwards compatibility.

    i mean ubuntu can do some of those things and its netbook adoption rate is putrid. so mch so that companies started putting ancient windows xp home on the first bunch of netbooks after people complained so much and returned so many netbooks.

    chrome OS will be a failure probably.

    it just doesnt haveenough advantages over windows 7 + chrome browser (or another browser) to make up for all the crippling. the only people who could pull off chrome OS is apple because their loyal droves of lemmings would buy it even with all the drawbacks. plus they dont care about compatibility with existing software.
    Reply
  • Penti - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    Having Windows 7 license plus Broadcom Crystal HD for Video acceleration, so you could use Flash player would cost like $125 bucks for W7HP and Crystal HD though, add in more ram and it's 150-200 dollars, instead of the old ~$25 dollars for the old time netbooks with Windows XP. A 100 dollar premium would yield you a CULV/ULV (C2D/Core2) laptop that handles multimedia much better and is a fully functioning computer. Simply put a netbook with an Atom CPU, 2GB ram, Intel chipset, harddrive, wireless, TFT-screen, touchpad, keyboard and Crystal HD together with a larger battery something the 200 or 300 dollar devices don't have would cost $500 easily with the OS license.

    So what you really argument against is Atom based netbooks nothing else. Running Chrome which still needs to be licensed in some form, video decoders and stuff aren't free but already payed for by Google when they build it, building Chrome yourself is criminal in that sense (with video support). And they still need large battery's and hardware video acceleration (bitstream decoding) even if they just run Chrome browser. You might get by with 1GB, but that's hardly an argument, and you might get by without any real storage as Chrome OS just needs to be a live distribution with an browser, but that's hardly an argument either as that doesn't save any money but that's not the point, it's really is that it's a proper thin client machine! Thin clients aren't free they offer other benefits, in the PC-world they still cost like $450 without screen, keyboard or mouse. Sometimes up to $499, why? Because they use normal PC-type parts, they use Atom with a XP or 7 Embedded OEM OS. If you want cheap, or rather cheap hardware you would just buy a $499 dollar business usable notebook instead. Getting a notebook with Windows 7 Pro (so you could use it in a corporate environment) would not cost much more then five hundreds if that was all you cared about. It wouldn't be too difficult getting that for around $500, and then you don't need any keyboard, mouse or screen.

    Also you have to add in also that a Gobi-card easily costs over $100 USD. $400 is not bad for that piece of tech. But it's simply not a portable PC. It's a thin client platform with a proper browser and local multimedia support that you use for remote apps. Be it via RDP/Citrix, web apps on company servers or webservices on the internet. Without having to manage an complete OS. But it's not to escape Microsoft. But in the roam or field of thin appliances it's a real step forward then to having some linux based thing without proper none remote client use or local browser, or customized XP/7 embedded devices with a local IE8 browser, but lacking the diversity of Chrome browser and HTML5 support. But cost saving always come from other places then in buying in the kit a computer is cheap compared to the software and licensing and the managing a few hundred bucks don't do any real difference there. And home users don't really have any Citrix to connect too for all the windows/real apps. Chrome with HTML5 w/ video acceleration and possibly flash player support is really all what many home users need though and something other thin client solutions haven't offered. But it is more like a thin client PC from the corporation they work at that they also can use for leisure then anything else. But that's still what was missing, doing all the boring stuff was already possible even on none-x86 based mobile thin clients.

    Ubuntu on the other hand can't do netbooks, they can't support the hardware dell isn't prepared to do anything so it doesn't amount to anything more then a community hobbyhack that you can't upgrade the OS on with bad drivers that isn't sold outside of the US. No GPS functionality to speak of built in, no gps maps, drivers don't support the Gobi's GPS, no H.264 video support for HTML5 browsers without Chrome installed by the user that uses for a netbook way to slow ffmpeg to decode it, no flash player with video acceleration OOB since the Linux options don't have the Crystal HD card or ION/ION-NG, and GMA4500 doesn't support it since they are on other APIs not supported by Adobe and Flash player is in a bad state on Linux still, it's just the beta that has got acceleration. It simply gets a unusable result out of the box so why would any body buy it? It's simply right that they don't. They shouldn't. As it's easier buying one with Windows and hacking in Ubuntu yourself. You could probably get that video acceleration support too then also. But that's not why they would buy something like this, Linux enthusiasts would VNC in to their linuxbox with Chrome/Chromeapp on the Chrome OS notebook not hack their own OS. But for the others it's simply a matter of it working out of the box. Something that is new even to Windows based stuff in this category. And as said those Linux boxes can't even be bought in most countries. A Chrome OS app with RDP support is also all that's needed to connect to their Windows home PC's to run Windows apps inside the chrome browser. It's not situated to be a complete computer replacement, but it doesn't need to be either. If it's working OOB, gets updated without problems and support all the basic stuff then it's miles from the badly designed Linux offers in the past. No offense to Linux here, just the OEM's that aren't trying and Canonical which the OEM's shouldn't entertain the thought with. And just look what they do with Android or Linux embedded in network/storage devices when they are trying. People will simply not buy something that aren't finished and supported. Unsupported software means the whole computer is EOL and thrown in the trash. Think of it in this way what use would the iPhone 1 gen been after a year if they hadn't updated the software from the first firmware it came with in 2007. None. Think how awful it had been to wait two years for 3GS to come out to get updated software. That's how badly the netbook linux debacle was handled. People would have returned the iPhone 1 gen if they couldn't update the software either, as it would been outdated in months unusable in a year prehistoric in two. But people aren't even aware of the fact that there is Ubuntu netbooks to begin with, you can't buy them in electronic stores. They rightly stayed away from the connmens of Xandros. One time hacks that aren't updated or maintained aren't enough. Of course everybody stayed away and nobody loved it. But that's not the case from all OEMs when building Linux products! Some are very in tune with the community, but also manage to create commercial products that everybody can use. So no rejection from users or community behind the software and philosophies. So in all what's running under Chrome is pretty unimportant, it's whats done with it that matters. That it's Linux doesn't yield disadvantage in this case. If you bought a XP computer where you couldn't update from SP1 you would have returned it too. That's how bad Asus handled it. Google just need to support a slim hardware choice it would work better then on the Android phones. OEM's would simply pick the compatible parts and Google would support and update the software. Something Canonical haven't been able to do in the consumer electronics field again. Moblin never got to the stage were it tried to do it, MeeGo hasn't either. There's always good potential when you have good vendors and support the stuff yourself though as an OEM. But you don't do it to save licensing money. Which is why Asus/Acer is so retarded and dropped it. A netbook or tablet isn't a desktop. That would be harder. But that's also no trouble buying if your a business. Just not from Canonical. Don't just judge out of that.
    Reply
  • Aelinos - Wednesday, December 08, 2010 - link

    If Opera made an OS like this, I'd jump on it for a netbook. Seriously, you already have Widgets for Web Apps, and Opera Link for syncing information. On top of that, thanks to Opera Unite, I can share just about anything from any computer that I have Opera on, as long as I have internet.

    And the biggest pro of all? I wouldn't be bound to Google, Microsoft, or Apple.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    No, you would be bound to Opera. How is that any different? Reply

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