Chrome OS: Faster, simpler, safer

Chrome OS: Faster, simpler, safer
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First Published: Wed, Nov 25 2009. 12 38 AM IST

Illustration: Raajan / Mint
Illustration: Raajan / Mint
Updated: Wed, Nov 25 2009. 12 38 AM IST
The wait is not over yet, not at least for another year. But after Google lifted the veil from Chrome, its next-generation desktop operating system (OS), last week, the first glimpse was enough to announce the arrival of a game changer in the way we use our computers. In a demonstration at its headquarters at Mountain View, California, Sundar Pichai, vice-president of product management, mentioned a few things that are worth noting.
First, the OS is, as expected, a glorified version of the Google Chrome browser itself. The look and feel are pretty much the same, with just more eye candy and features in the Chrome OS.
Illustration: Raajan / Mint
Second, Google has made the source code for the OS available for download to anyone interested. So basically, both Google and external coders can now work on the underlying operating system at the same time.
Third, and the most important news for consumers, is that this OS will not work on regular hard disks. Google will tie up with hardware manufacturers to offer the new Chrome OS on selected devices—netbooks, tablets, laptops or anything else.
An open-source OS on a closed line-up of devices? Irony, thy name is Google. Pichai stressed that the goals of Chrome OS are the same as that of the browser—speed, simplicity and security.
Need for speed
The new OS is designed to work like a TV—instant on and instant off—and this requires more than just OS optimization to pull off. A Google Chrome OS-based computer will discard most of the bloat in the boot process today, cutting a system down to its essentials.
A computer today wastes precious time looking for hardware—such as floppy drives—which are no longer present. Thanks to the custom hardware, Chrome OS devices will feature custom firmware and a new boot process that ensures a boot-up time of mere seconds.
Pichai and his colleague demonstrated this by booting up an Asus EEE netbook PC which was switched off. Chrome OS was at the login screen in 7 seconds. Pichai says it will take only 3 seconds more to be on the Web and browsing.
Also, the new OS will work only on Solid State Drives (SSD), which are notably faster than normal hard-disk drives, says Matthew Papakipos, engineering director for Google Chrome OS. That’s right, no hard disks with moving parts will be supported. So if you planned to run this on your computer with a dual-boot system, think again.
Simplicity is its forte
The browser supports multiple open windows. This mechanism is similar to Windows 7’s task-bar previews.
To make simplicity a strong factor, the Chrome OS will rely completely on the cloud, with almost no support whatsoever for offline usage. There will be no desktop applications. Not even one. It’s all in the cloud with this one, and aimed primarily at portability with devices such as netbooks.
Applications running on Google Chrome OS will all run off the Web directly, although the OS features something it calls “panels”, which are essentially small widget-like applications that minimize to the status bar area from where they can be recalled. Pichai demonstrated a notepad widget that automatically saves to Google Docs. He also demonstrated Google Talk and an MP3 player widget from its new music search engine.
On the more technical side, HTML5 is a huge centre point for Chrome OS with its advanced video, audio, offline store technologies, and so on. And not surprisingly, the operating system will have full Flash support.
The OS browser also supports multiple open windows. The window switching mechanism is somewhat similar to what you see with Windows 7 with task-bar previews. The windows are thumbnailed, and hovering on one further pops up the tabs opened in it.
In a demonstration of working on documents from external devices, Google showcased how one could open documents from a pen drive. The pen drive contained Excel documents which opened straight in the Excel Live Web app. Did Microsoft just help make Chrome OS work better?
Applications on Chrome will run off the Web directly, although it features small widget-like applications.
High on security
With the speed and simplicity already accounted for—speed due to the revamped hardware, and simplicity since the entire OS is essentially a browser—we now come to security. Chrome OS touts the security paradigm of a Web application compared with a native application. Unlike native applications, a Web application cannot interact directly with the hardware on a computer, or even do anything outside of the sandboxed environment of the browser.
Furthermore, the OS and the firmware are signed, which means that tampering and malware will be detected during the boot process itself and will trigger an update of the system, bringing it back to normal. Additionally, the entire OS will be auto-updated, ensuring that users have the latest security updates; and since all applications are on the cloud, they will already be the latest versions available.
Finally, all data in Chrome OS is encrypted, so even if you were to lose your computer, your data could not be stolen off it. And since everything is synced to the cloud, you won’t lose your data in case of a theft or disk crash either!
A distant dream
Chrome will rely completely on the cloud, with no support for offline usage. There will be no desktop applications.
The biggest disappointment about the Chrome OS is that it won’t be available for anyone and everyone. When Google first announced the concept of an open-source OS, it seemed like Linux would finally get the push it needed from a technology giant, and the world would have an OS that could really compete with Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OSX. Unfortunately, that does not look like it will be the case.
Currently, it is possible to run Chrome OS in a virtual machine (a software container in the cloud that works as an independent OS and runs applications just like a physical machine). However, the lack of an official Google-made build means you will need to download the source and build it yourself—a solution best left to hard-core techies. However, the open source community should soon be coming out with enough solutions and guides to let the average tech enthusiast run Chrome OS on his computer.
In fact, a torrent of the OS for the virtual machine program VMWare was already in circulation within 24 hours of its release. But for the common user, the agonizing wait till late 2010 continues.
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First Published: Wed, Nov 25 2009. 12 38 AM IST
More Topics: Google | Chrome | OS | Browser | Netbooks |