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

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.

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.

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.

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.



ViewSonic’S new launch

ViewSonic has launched the VPC 100 (Rs31,999, plus taxes) and VPC 101 (Rs47,000, plus taxes)—all-in-one PCs which offer the entire computer in just its monitor. Both the VPC 100 and 101 come with an 18.5-inch screen, 1GB RAM, 160GB HDD, 8x DVD writer, a 1.3MP webcam and four-in-one card reader, and both run Windows XP Home. Their main points of difference are that the 101 uses an Atom 230 instead of the Atom 270, and 2x2 watt speakers instead of 2.3 watt. The 101, however, offers a better screen, with a 170-degree horizontal viewing angle instead of the 100’s 160-degree.

Free download

It seems that the success of the Windows 7 Beta has led Microsoft to believe that this is the perfect way to go forward with all new major software releases. It has just rolled out a free download of the beta version of Microsoft Office 2010 Professional. It includes MS Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access, InfoPath, Sharepoint Workspace, Communicator and Publisher. Microsoft recommends that users uninstall any previous version of Office they have been running, and not use this beta version as a office suite on their primary personal or office PCs. You will need a Windows Live account, and there’s a form to be filled out as well. Following that, you will be given a key to activate the software, and can choose between the 32-bit and 64-bit versions. The 684MB installer will start downloading in your browser itself through a special Microsoft download package.

New phone from LG

LG has launched the GD900 Crystal in India. The 13.5mm-thin phone, with a transparent, touch-sensitive keypad boasts a scratch-resistant design made from tempered glass and reinforced by a band of liquid metal. The 8MP shutter on the phone comes with autofocus and LED flash, and can also record video at 720x480 pixel resolution. The accelerometer on the 3-inch capacitive touch screen (16 million colours, 480x800 pixels) helps auto-rotate the screen when taking pictures, and even comes with a proximity sensor to turn it off when talking on the phone. The phone retails at Rs26,000.

Unite technology

Have you heard about the Opera’s upcoming Unite technology? It is a new feature in Opera 10.10 which embeds a Web server into your browser. With it, your Web browser becomes less of a consumer of online content, and more of a P2P (person to person) application which allows you to become a true member of the Internet. You can share your music and images, or set up your own website, run a messaging service, or allow people to leave notes on your computer while you are away—and these are just the “applications" bundled with Opera 10.10. The unite sidebar Opera also has a gallery of applications available online, which allow you to do anything, including running a music streaming service.

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