Chrome Detailing: Previewing Google's New Operating System

Last week, Google open-sourced its Chromium OS project, more than a year before the operating system is scheduled for release. In doing so, Google hopes a variety of developers and companies will become involved in the project, and has pledged to release regular updates as well as a comprehensive log of bug reports and fixes. We've spent a few days playing with Chromium and exploring its design and come away impressed—but not without questions.

This article should not be considered a review of Chromium in any way—at most, it's a very early preview. We won't be discussing performance or spending too much time on the operating system's "look and feel." Google has stated up front that a number of UI changes are in the pipeline.

What we are going to talk about is Google's design vision for Chromium, the unique benefits it offers, and a bit of why Google is throwing its hat into this particular ring in the first place. Chromium, after all, is a Linux-based OS entering the smartbook/netbook market at a time when said product segment is already being served by a variety of Linux distros (some customized to the hardware, some not), XP, and Windows 7. In the midst of all these options, do we need another operating system?

We just might.

Understanding Chromium

Google has put together a 3.5 minute video that does a pretty good job of explaining Chrome's design philosophy. For those of you who don't feel like watching, we'll discuss it after the jump.

Chromium is designed around the premise that computers have largely evolved into boxes from which we access the Internet. If you've ever lost Internet service (but not electricity) for a protracted period of time, you've probably seen the company's point. Evaluated in terms of what a modern system is capable of doing, getting online is but one, minor feature. From a user perspective, however, Internet connectivity is a matter of tremendous importance—lose the net, and your system transforms from a communications platform/multimedia hub into a box for writing papers, gaming alone... or something.

Google's view, although the company doesn't say it in so many words, is that the lot of us—Linux, Mac, and Microsoft users alike—are using a device initialization and access platform designed nearly thirty years ago to access the cutting-edge capability of today. Imagine, for a moment, that we were shipping 1080P content on VCR tapes at 50 tapes per movie, and you get the picture.

On the left, old and busted. On the right, New Hotness.
If computers are basically Internet portals and almost everything we do takes place online, then why not cut out the middle man altogether? That's where Chromium comes in. The OS is very clearly based on the Chrome browser, but Google has already begun implementing the more advanced UI requirements that an OS requires.

Wherever You Go, Here You Are

Chromium simplifies the concept of an application the same way it simplifies the operating system i.e., by throwing most of it away. Chromium apps won't just interface with the web or contain web-based components, they'll exist there. The 'cloud' in cloud computing thus transforms from an abstract concept of computing resources or storage floating vaguely in space into something much more unique and personal. The cloud has literally become your cloud—your life, online. The OS is tied tightly enough to the cloud that online connectivity is vital in order to practically operate or make use of the device.

Google's version of a task manager.  Note the amazing amount of goat teleportation...
We moved a herd last night (rounded up to the nearest full goat.)

All this focus on Internet connectivity and web applications may have you wondering what sort of local storage options are available, and the answer is currently up in the air. Several of Google's presentations imply that the system has no internal storage at all (at least none that is user-accessible). At other points the company states that no hard drives will be supported, but that systems will include varying amounts of flash memory.

To summarize the sales pitch: Chromium gets rid of all the crusty old legacy garbage, moves storage online where it's both universally available and backed up, provides a platform that finally integrates browser and OS, all while providing a fabulous, multimedia-rich online experience. Everything you currently do offline will be available online, seamlessly provided by a content platform that presents a universal, standards-based framework rather than a hodgepodge of browsers, security bugs, and broken standards support.

Chrome's memory manager

Rather than attempt to pass verdict on an OS that isn't out of beta, we've devoted this section to a few of Chromium's potential greatest strengths and accompanying challenges. If you've got a different list than we do, feel free to sound off below in the comments.

The Potential
  • A Genuine, Unified Windows Alternative: Linux holds part of the netbook market, but the majority of the space, particularly the higher-end models, have opted for a Microsoft operating system. Chromium is Linux-based and it'll be backed by the financial and technical assets of Google. If Google woos developers appropriately and develops the proper toolkits, Microsoft could find itself with a true head-to-head competitor, the likes of which it hasn't had to deal with in decades. Google, like Microsoft, can afford to take its time and get it right, even if it takes a few years to do so.
  • Competitive non-x86 Products: The overwhelming majority of netbooks currently in existence are based on Intel's Atom and powered by an Intel chipset. There's nothing wrong with that—the point is not criticise Atom—but a new, processor-agnostic OS could drive innovation in both processor and platform design across the industry. Currently, an x86 processor has a massive inherent advantage because it runs Windows—and so does everything else. Over a period of time, there's no reason Google couldn't simultaneously invest in whatever software tools are needed to ease the transition while providing OEMs with the information they need to make deploying a non-Windows product as easy as a Windows one. Indeed, the cost of 'transition' is designed to be nonexistent. If you're familiar with a browser window on Windows, you're familiar with a browser window in Chromium.

  • All Hail Our Corporate, Web 2.0 Overlord: This last advantage is more a gain for Google than it is for your average consumer, but it's a gain—and a corporate goal—worth talking about. It's no secret that Google wants to be more than just your search engine; if Chromium takes market share, it, and by extension Google, will be front-and-center of your entire Internet experience. Again, this isn't meant to be inherently evil-sounding, but if it works, Google's brand presence would expand immensely.
The Challenges
  • Making It "Just Work": If the browser is the operating system, the browser window has to be able to handle a lot of different types of content, and it needs to handle it well. Google has said it intends to use HTML5 to pull off quite a few of its planned features, but it'll need other capabilities, like direct access to the video card. From a technical perspective, there's a lot of things that need to happen under the hood in order for Chromium to present users with a smooth, stable, experience. The company also has to have a plan for what happens when something doesn't work.

    Once upon a time, if a program or system driver crashed, it took your OS with it nine times out of ten. Then XP came along, and an application blowout didn't necessarily mean an automatic reboot. Vista and Windows 7 have further advanced the concept—if your display driver crashes these days, Windows will often freeze briefly, then resume normal operation (with a note of what occurred). If you kill an instance of Firefox within Task Manager, the app remembers the websites you had open, and offers to open them again. Chrome, the browser, offers this sort of functionality, but an OS needs layers of robustness that a browser can take for granted.

  • Offline Functionality and Local Storage: Google can talk all it wants about how the web has become synonymous with computing, and it sounds accurate until you stop and think about all the exceptions. These include, but are by no means limited to: Areas without free WiFi, areas with theoretically free WiFi with practically zero functionality. Hospitals, airplanes (without paying exorbitant costs), odd corners of the house, power outages, road trips, and pretty much the entire Louisiana Purchase.

    Cellular cards could solve some of these problems but introduce others, especially if you don't live in 3G territory. To date, Chromium is being discussed as a web-centric operating system designed to put you in direct, lightning-fast contact with the content you want most. That's all to the good and it gives the company the chance to talk about what really sets its OS apart from those dull desktop types. A year from now, a lot of Chromium's appeal could be riding on what users can do with one when they aren't connected to the Internet or want to save content locally. There are occasions, after all, where 'the cloud' is the very last place you want certain information to reside.
One final bit of irony. Over ten years ago, Microsoft was sued for bundling a browser with Windows 98. Does it amuse anyone else that Google is bundling an operating system along with their browser?