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Google held a press event this afternoon to talk about the company’s upcoming Google Chrome operating system. Here’s the short version: It’s a light weight OS built to support the Google Chrome web browser. The only apps that you’ll be able to install will be web apps, although Google is working to ensure that Chrome OS can interact with desktop hardware such as video cards and webcams.

Since the OS basically only exists to boot a web browser, the whole thing loads in about 7 seconds on a system with an Intel Atom processor, and you can get online and launch web apps in another 3 seconds.

But here’s the interesting part for netbook users: Chrome is set to launch initially for netbook-like devices. That means clamshell devices with a full sized keyboard. In fact, Google representatives said that they expect the devices that run Google Chrome OS to be larger than today’s netbooks and to have high resolution displays. They say they expect those netbooks to be in “price ranges people are used to” seeing from netbooks today, which to me means $200 to $400.

As an interesting side note, Google showed a demo of Chrome OS running on a netbook. When asked, a Google rep said that it was an Eee PC. It wasn’t. As you can see from the image below, it’s clearly an Acer Aspire One.

1What’s really intriguing about all of this is that I’m starting to think that Chrome OS is going to make Google Android look like a good choice for netbooks. While Android was designed for cellphones, not notebooks, the operating system can run native applications and works whether you’re online or off. ChromeOS won’t be able to run Google Android apps, or any apps that aren’t available on the web.

That’s the same model Steve Jobs promised for the iPhone when it was first introduced, but Apple eventually opened up the iPhone to third party development for native applications. Google says the difference is that notebooks with Intel Atom or more powerful ARM-based processors are better suited to surfing the full web and handling powerful web apps than the iPhone ever was. So while Apple designed its built-in apps for the iPhone to run natively, the only native app that will run on Chrome OS is the Chrome web browser.

Finally, here’s a little video Google put together trying to explain exactly what Google Chrome OS is:

It’s not a good sign that they need to spend 3 minutes explaining what a new operating system is, is it? What do you think? Is the lack of local storage and native apps a feature? Or is it a a disadvantage?

One attendee asked whether Google would try to position Chrome OS as an instant-on OS that could be a companion to Windows or another operating system. In other words, it would function like Splashtop or HyperSpace, giving users a choice of loading a limited, fast-boot OS or a full version of Windows  when they hit the power button. The Google reps kind of skirted around that question, but I could definitely see Chrome OS making a lot more sense as a companion OS rather than a standalone operating system.

On the other hand, Google, and many others, see netbooks as companion devices. The idea is that you don’t expect a netbook to be your primary computer, and you might not expect Chrome OS to be your primary operating system. Instead, it’s the OS you use when you’re interacting with web apps from your netbook. And in that case, it doesn’t necessarily have to do everything that a desktop OS does or even be all that useful when you can’t get online.

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14 replies on “Google explains Chrome OS: What it means for netbooks”

  1. It will be interesting to see what Google thinks is appropriate hardware for a Chrome device. Cheap devices with only SSDs means it will have little local storage. Since everything is cloud based I expect a 3G connection would almost be essential. Could it be that the wireless carriers will be the main distributors of such a device? They could be almost free with a 2 year contract. Not something I would be interested in though. As an alternative to Splashtop it might be useful, or maybe if it was run in a VM if it has some killer feature you want. Other than that, meh.

  2. @Granville Gilbert: It’s open source, so someone’s bound to package it for existing netbooks.

    When I hear “device that doesn’t run any native apps, only web apps”, I think “2GB flash, 7-inch screen, $99 on Black Friday next year”. Not that that’s a bad thing, but at this point people assume that a laptop that costs 400 bucks is going to actually be a laptop and not an Internet appliance. Even $200 laptops run full versions of XP or Ubuntu nowadays, and a 7 second boot time says “Hyperspace minus Firefox”. But a $99 ARM-based thing that boots in 10 seconds would be fine. I’d buy one, as long as I could hack it and boot to a real OS when I wanted to.

    Also, if “doesn’t run native apps” is implemented the same way as on Palm WebOS, it’s a euphemism for “the only way to run native apps is to write them as Mozilla plugins”. Does anyone really think this thing will forgo the “real” Adobe Flash plugin in favor of some Chrome/Gnash mashup that won’t play Hulu videos?

    Finally, naming your browser and operating system the same thing as your competition’s user interface layer is just obnoxious.

  3. A major problem I see for any cloud computing at this point is the asymmetrical bandwidth. While downloads are fine in most places, upload speeds are glacial in comparison.

    Some of the demonstrated functionality would only feasibly work on a local (LAN) connection. Opening small documents is fine. However, since everything is sent to the cloud, large documents (for example big PDFs, videos, the 150 photos on your camera) will take many minutes (possibly hours) to open.

    People that don’t understand what is happening will invariably consider the function broken.

    Likewise, I’m not sure the content companies will be happy that you are copying and uploading content to Google. Some content on your computer has restricted copyright and even backups are prohibited. While the end-user has no control over this process when using ChomeOS, legally I’m pretty sure they will be the ones that are responsible.

    In short, until bandwidth reaches the magical 100Mb/s/100Mbs and content companies give up control over their media, cloud-based computing is a hot mess.

    1. You can store and cache files locally and view them offline as well. Loading a PDF is just as fast as a website, through Google’s instant “view PDF as HTML” feature.

      1. That means that the PDF has been uploaded to Google, Google has converted the document, and you are seeing the resulting downloaded (and cached) HTML.

        ChomeOS has no local applications, so there is no PDF viewer on the machine. The resulting output can be cached for faster repeat viewing (until the cache entry is flushed), but the upload/download cycle is required.

    2. In the cloud-computing (CC) concept, the PDF would’ve been created in the cloud, no uploading needed. Likewise, any media creation or acquisition (eg via iTunes) would also be stored online. What you’re thinking of is a mixed environment, of both ‘traditional’ computing and CC. A CC proponent would reply that since CC is the future, then any offline-online “conversion” is a temporary inconvenience needed for the transition.

      Yes, I realize it sounds wobbly. Bandwidth is only one of the many objections CC faces. OTOH, CC does offer substantive benefits as well, although most of these are for the vendors rather than the end-user.

  4. Google says they expect ChromeOS to be for netbooks. Then they say the devices will have bigger screens, bigger keyboards, and must have an SSD. They also mentioned support for multi-core processors. Adding all that will probably bring up the prices.

    How can something fitting that description still be called a netbook?

    Granted, the current definition was made by Microsoft and Intel, but it’s pretty well established. Netbooks are small, cheap laptops. If it isn’t small or cheap, then it’s just a laptop.

    1. A larger screen and keyboard maximum ads about 30 dollars to the cost even less. You can source a 15 inch screen on the open market for not much more than 30 dollars more than a 10 inch screen. And the larger keyboard is basically the same price.

      The only reason Intel+Microsoft “netbooks” are small, is cause Intel+Microsoft are so very scared to take away all of their existing profit margins from larger sized laptops.

  5. I’ll wait for the Google Gold or Platinum OS. Let’em work the bugs out.

  6. I think it’s the first step of many. The spiele Google presented today wasn’t very compelling, to put it kindly. One only needs to browse the comments in the various tech forums to see the pushback.

    I won’t dwell on the obvious issues raised by the detractors. I’ll just add that one problem with viewing netbooks as “companion devices” is that they’re slowly becoming more and more full-featured and capable as standalone PCs, and the thin&light CULV category will push self-sufficient computing even further down the size & cost curve.

    As mentioned by another, this may be viable in a corp setting as mobile thin clients, with the “cloud” being housed on corp servers. I don’t see the business crowd as being overly fond of being restricted to the netbook form factor, though.

    It’s tough to see a business case for the gOS as it stands now. I don’t see the Goog people as having any answer either, hence their umms and uhhhs in the Q&A. I think they simply wanted to have a stripped down OS, leveraging their online strength, and realizing that it will take a number of iterations before this ‘cloud’ thing makes business sense.

    It’d be interesting to see where Android fits into this picture, seeing as how some vendors are already porting to their netbooks.

  7. I can’t believe I would not be able to download Chrome OS to my Netbook, but I must buy a new netbook. Google is becoming the new microsoft. What a shame they are doing to earn some cuts from the manufacturers of netbooks. Way to go!. BIG disappointment.

    1. You can download Chromium OS today and install it on your current netbook using a USB stick. No problem.

      It just is, Google is planning for 50-100 dollar netbooks to be available with Chrome OS pre-installed. That will be better.

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