Google Chrome OS

Google have announced their movement into the operating system market with a blog posting on Google Chrome OS:

Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010.

[…] we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.

[…] The software architecture is simple — Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel. For application developers, the web is the platform.

@jbmorley asked me what I thought about this, and my response is a little long for twitter.

Why is this boring?

Let’s get this over with first.

In essence, this is just another Linux distro, albeit one with a substantially different focus to most other distributions and, for that matter, other operating systems. Using Linux as a base is the most pragmatic way to go, much like using Webkit was for Chrome, especially given Google’s heavy experience inside the kernel.

Why is this interesting?

If Chrome is anything to go by, Google are willing to tear things apart and start from scratch to get the features they want. Chrome OS will focus on getting a user to the web as fast as possible. Such a single minded focus will produce some very interesting compromises, I expect, in the boot process. Many processes considered essential to run before a desktop is loaded can be overlooked when your sole aim is to get up a GUI with net connection:

  • Sound (no sounds on
  • Samba.
  • Most peripheral drivers.

I imagine, at least to begin with, the OS will almost be a thin-client, with a focus around the web browser. If Google want to live up to their claims that users will be able to forget about viruses, patching and other security pitfalls the system needs to be minimal.

As an aside, some people seem to think this implies no patching. It’s important to note, therefore, that patching can happen in the background without bothering the user about it—so Google’s note on this doesn’t mean your operating system doesn’t need patching. At one extreme, if you have the base Google OS image with no extras, there’s no reason why Google cannot transparently deliver you a new image while you are browsing/working and switch to it next boot.

I have several questions about how Google will deliver their promised chore-free experience, however, as I don’t think it’s an easy task:

  • Will users be able to install non-Google sanctioned applications?
    • Only supporting sanctions applications makes security much simpler, but has the potential of really frustrating users.
    • In this age of the net, will they need to?
    • No games?
    • Given OS X still lacks for viruses, this may not be an issue for a long time

Linux works fine with most printers, scanners and cameras these days, meaning a user should be able to plug in most “content-based” peripherals in and use them without issue. For net-based users, this should cover most bases.

Focusing on Businesses

I think Google are trying to build a direct revenue stream by selling into businesses and Chrome OS is a significant pillar of the strategy. It will provide two primary benefits for user pain points:

  • Integration with Google Apps, providing single-sign-on to Google.
  • Easy management, possibly remotely via Google, and the reduction in worry that comes with not running Windows.

In building the Google App Engine version of this blog, I’ve observed several features obviously targeted toward making it possible for a business to run their IT operations completely on Google’s infrastructure. There are the obvious mail, calendar and talk applications which come with Google Apps, but the real tip-off is that App Engine is tied into Google Apps so businesses can build applications which reuse their existing investment in user profiles and management.

Integration with Google’s sign on infrastructure is more important than it may first appear, as your Google ID is also an OpenID (kind of). This means you have single-sign-on for a respectable number of websites outside the Google realm. A big win for users currently juggling many different passwords—and the businesses who have to support these employees.

I believe one of the goals of Chrome OS is to expand Google’s hold on IT applications into the business’s premises. If the majority of your applications are running from Google Apps (and App Engine)—or other web providers, such as 37signals —then moving to a Linux-based operating system designed to get you onto the web as quickly as possible makes sense. It’s kind of like having a virus free, thin(ish) client, but one which is capable of local storage—required for offline access via Gears.

Once all your applications are web-based, the minimal support requirements for Linux operating systems operating as essentially thin clients is very appealing. Especially if you have someone you already trust, like Google, behind the operating systems.

Businesses are currently beholden to Microsoft and live in that ecosystem—only somewhat willingly. The two questions I have in my mind are the willingness of businesses to replace this with a Google infrastructure and whether a business will be as willing to give all its assets to Google for management. I suspect easy data replication tools will be a must to reassure people, but there are other factors in the decision; offline support prime amongst them.


This is a bold move which many thought Google wouldn’t make: challenging both Microsoft and Apple in the operating system area. Further, and more importantly, Google are directly challenging Microsoft’s stranglehold on the business ecosystem, with the combination of Apps for your Domain, App Engine and Chrome OS. Is this what consumers and businesses are after? Only time will tell.

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