Google Chrome OS: Its Promises and Secrets

google chrome os
Four months ago, Google announced it was working on an operating system for netbooks called Chrome OS. Today, at a press event at the Googleplex which I attended, the company demonstrated it in public for the first time and provided more details about its plans.

Nothing Google had to say came as a great revelation -- it largely confirmed and expounded upon the goals laid out in the initial blog post on the project. Google's Chrome OS will emphasize speed, simplicity, and security; it'll store everything in the cloud; it'll come preinstalled on netbooks. And it's an open-source product with a Linux heart beating deep inside.

[Relate: Google Chrome OS: Visual Tour & Google Chrome OS Unveiled: Speed, Simplicity, and Security Stressed)

After the jump, my first stab at collecting known and unknown details about the OS -- additions, corrections, and questions welcome.

What's the interface like?

That's easy: It's like Chrome the browser. Remarkably so. Pretty much, it looks like a version of Chrome that sprung little nubby legs and crawled out of the primordial ooze.

Chrome OS does have some interface aspects that Chrome lacks, such as a list of apps, the ability to pin apps in tabs so they stay around, and widget-like "Panels" that pop up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. (Actually, that last feature reminds me of how the Tasks list works in Gmail.)

Google says that everything about Chrome OS is subject to change before the first netbooks using it ship, but for now, what's most striking about Chrome OS's interface is how unstriking it is. It's Chrome.

When will Chrome netbooks appear?

About a year from now.

What'll the specs be like?

Well, for one thing, these machines won't have hard drives. They'll use solid-state disks, which is one reason why Google can reasonably be telling folks that Chrome OS machines will boot in a few seconds. (Solid-state storage is expensive, but if Chrome OS systems store everything in the cloud, they should be able to get away with tiny disks.)

Google says it's working with hardware companies to determine spec guidelines for Chrome OS PCs -- and that it would like to see them have at least somewhat larger screens and comfier keyboards than most current netbooks.

How much will Chrome OS machines cost?

Don't expect any news until well into next year. They'll clearly be low-cost portables, but here's one question: Since Google, unlike Microsoft, won't charge for the operating system, will they be strikingly cheaper than similar Windows 7 systems?

Who'll Make Chrome OS Netbooks?

Google didn't talk about hardware partners today, but it has in the past. Acer, Asus, HP, and Lenovo are all involved with the project and will presumably offer Chrome OS machines.

I want to buy a Chrome OS desktop.

Um, that isn't a question. But Google said today that its focus for 2010 is on netbooks. Chrome OS on other types of computers might come later.

Will I be able to install Chrome OS on my own computer?

Officially, the answer we got to that today was "no." But at the same time, Google talked about developers installing it right now on netbooks. My guess is that nerds will create Hackintosh-like unofficial Chrome OS netbooks, sharing their knowledge about how to do the job. Google may not help, but it won't stop them, either.

Will you be able to use a Chrome OS system when you don't have an Internet connection?

Yes. Maybe. At least sort of. Google says that Chrome OS PCs will be meant principally for use when you're online, and that local storage is there mostly to cache data until the OS can push it up to the cloud. But there will be at least some capability to store local media such as music, and Google said that it'll support new HTML5 features designed to enable offline use.

I'm still hazy, however, about whether Google's Gears offline technology will be part of Chrome OS -- if so, it'll be a boon, since Gmail and Google Docs will have some degree of capability when you're not connected -- or whether a Chrome OS laptop would go into doorstop mode when you were on a plane without Wi-Fi.

One thing we do know: Google has no plans to let Chrome OS use traditional client apps, although, as a Linux variant, it could presumably do so.

What are the benefits of data living in the cloud?

It's available from any Chrome OS netbook, for one thing. And assuming that Google takes good care of it, you don't need to worry about backups. (I'm not clear on whether Chrome-the-browser will have access to a Chrome OS netbook owner's personal workspace, but it would be pretty neat if you could log into your Chrome OS desktop from a browser on a PC or Mac -- especially since Google says it sees Chrome OS machines as secondary computers.)

What makes Chrome OS so secure?

Apps are sandboxed, so they can't interfere with each other. The root system is read only. All user data is encrypted. And code is signed: The OS checks itself at boot time, and if anything looks fishy, it downloads chunks of itself on the fly and reinstalls them.

Will Chrome OS support Flash?

Yup.

Silverlight?

No comment.

Will Android apps work?

No -- they're client software. Chrome OS doesn't run client apps.

Will other browsers run on Chrome OS?

Depends on how you look at it, and how things transpire. Chrome OS won't support local applications, so you won't be able to download and install Firefox. But Chrome OS is an open-source project, so there's nothing stopping a Firefox fan from attempting to build a Chrome OS that somehow encompasses Firefox.

Will I be able to tweak my Chrome OS setup? I've made so many changes to my Windows machine it's unrecognizable.

Well, I assume Google will give you some ability to fiddle with color schemes, wallpaper, and the like. But as far as I know, you won't be able to install utilities that let you fiddle with the interface in ways that Google didn't intend or permit. That would be running local applications, and Chrome OS doesn't run local applications.

Will there be a Chrome OS app store?

Google said it's still figuring out the best ways to help users find useful tools they can use on Chrome OS netbooks. But the company did point out that when all your apps are Web apps, you've got millions of items to choose from -- not the iPhone's 100,000 programs.

Will my printer, scanner, phone, MP3 player, EVDO adapter, external hard drive, USB TV tuner, and smartpen work with Chrome OS?

Good question! Google made cryptic references to a nontraditional plan it has to let Chrome OS netbooks work, and says it's working with hardware companies to draw up a list of devices that Chrome OS will support. It seems like it's a given that a lot of stuff won't work, especially at first. And we don't yet know whether Chrome OS will be so wildly popular that Canon, say, will champ at the bit to write drivers for all its gadgets that let Chrome OS users buy and use ‘em.

Who is Chrome OS meant for, exactly?

You know, Google didn't quite articulate that today. But it would seem that it'll target users who (A) want an inexpensive second computer; (B) find Windows too complicated, slow, unsafe, and/or unreliable; (C) rarely go anywhere where they can't get online; (D) are comfortable with a machine they can't customize the heck out of; and (E) don't have any traditional client applications that they absolutely, positively can't live without.

Is the world ready for a 100% cloud-based computer?

That's the big question, right? I want you guys to discuss it in the comments. But my take is this: The idea will make more sense a year from now, but it'll still be very early to consider cutting yourself off entirely from local apps and storage. And Google was vague enough today that I'm still unclear about just how useful (or useless) a Chrome OS system is when the Internet is unavailable.

More thoughts to come. I'm already curious whether there's any chance I can figure out how to install the Chrome OS code that went public today on my own personal netbook, which happens to be an Asus EeePC 1000HE...anyone else out there contemplating trying to get the OS up and running?

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