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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  • Incognitus - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    So, what you get is a crippled computer for the price of a real one that is locked into a walled garden software environment controlled by a company that build its business model on digging personal data, while effectively re-introducing the dial-up era "pay-per-use" model of old ?

    Sorry, maybe I have not drunken enough cool aid to see why this is great for any user.

    One can only hope that MS stays in business and true to a business model that actually makes a PC a device that INCREASES freedom. And boy, if you would have told me 10 years ago that one time MS would become the last line of defense when it comes to freedom and privacy, I would have laughed you out of the door.
    Reply
  • andrewbuchanan - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    Lol. how true. Reply
  • Murst - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    Anand -

    Your comments about the performance hit due to Win7 seems to go directly against the comments about Moore's law.

    If Moore's law continues to apply, we should continue seeing massive performance increases in Netbooks at the same price points. By the end of next year (probably), it should mean that Netbooks should have absolutely no problem running Win7 (even if price continues to drop, it can't keep on dropping forever ). If that's the case, the performance advantage of Chrome OS disappears.

    It just seems like there was a market for Chrome OS, but Google was a couple years too slow. If this was released a couple years ago, it could have made a huge difference. However, if performance will no longer be a problem for Netbooks running Win7, the advantages of something like Chrome OS aren't so clear, especially at the same price points.
    Reply
  • Spivonious - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    Isn't Google giving away the OS somewhat anticompetitive? Apple and MS can't compete with that.

    Also, $400 is just way too much for what 1990s Sun would call an Internet appliance. For the same $400 I can get a CULV laptop and get a much better experience.
    Reply
  • Zorblack1 - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    So I can spend $50 more and get a netbook with Windows and DL Chrome and get the same experience + windows. What a joke.

    However that said the idea of a complete browser based OS is interesting and headed towards the future.

    Data rates in the US are outragous. They should never be refered to as reasonable even if they are inline with current pricing (raping?).
    Reply
  • Radicchio - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    As I see it, one big advantage of Chrome is the 'stateless' PC in that if you lose your laptop or it is corrupted, it will automatically download a new boot image and as soon as you log in, restore all your apps and settings.

    Windows 7 already provides very this functionality for your Office 2007 settings and Favourites via Live Mesh. What I would like to see is this extended so the entire user profile (up to 5GB) is synchronised automatically and transparently: if my laptop hard drive fails I still need to reinstall Win 7 and my apps, but I then log into Mesh and everything is restored.

    A small service running the Windows Easy Transfer utility and Mesh is all that is required and this would also be an ideal way to deal with the build-up of 'Windows cruft'...
    Reply
  • ABR - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    I don't get the "it's not the apps, it's the OS" argument. It might be that Windows bogs things down a lot by itself, but in most cases the reason for all the swapping, etc. is -- guess what -- the web browser. Web browsers increasingly attempt to provide a whole OS's worth of GUI and document manipulation possibilities, which are effectively layered over the same stuff provided by the OS. But because of constraints or unplanned development by small teams or whatever else, they've never been particularly efficient. It's not uncommon to see browsers consuming dozens of megabytes per tab. That's millions of bytes of information for a far less interactive display than provided by a typical desktop app.

    This is why Apple took the opposite approach with iOS: apps have only one layer of highly-optimized API before getting to the low-level OS and then the hardware. The smoothness i-devices have over others with better hardware is the result.

    But in computing, the higher-level model always wins, because hardware overtakes any inefficiency. The Chrome approach might be the future, but it will be in spite of bloat, not because of reducing it.
    Reply
  • wumpus - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    The opening statement claimed that you could reach 90% of personal computers in 1996 by writing for one OS seems unlikely. You could probably run a DOS program on 90%, but it would be much harder to get win 3.1 and windows95 users to run in the DOS penalty box. I know I still played plenty of games (Quake 1 and I'm sure plenty of glade games) in DOS but I think your hypothetical program would get more users if built for win3.1 (but would not be possible on >10% of boxes). Reply
  • andrewbuchanan - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    I'd rather have a notebook with windows and run chrome in it.

    And at 12" you can get a notebook. Might cost alot more than $400, but it'd be able to do alot more as well.

    Also the new amd atom alternatives should be fast enough to run windows 7 better and still fall into the $400 price range.
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    This is really fascinating! If you trust Google this is.. dare I say the holy grail of computing? A system which just works and which is capable of almost any task most people need to do. Nevermind the curretn hardware implementation, cost for data transfer etc... this could change / improve any day.

    Just forget your well managed, high performance main rig for a moment and consider Joe Sixpack in all his computer-illiterate clumsy-ness and what this could do for him!
    Reply

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