Google's Chrome OS: trendsetting or just wishful thinking?
Fri, Nov 27 2009

By Jonathan Oxer, author of "How To Build A Website And Stay Sane" Well, I'm back! Of course I never really went away, but eBusiness News has been on hiatus since May and people keep telling me they miss it. In the meantime I've written another book (more info at www.practicalarduino.com in case you're interested) and IVT has completed dozens of projects and hired more staff. We've even had to do office renovations to fit in more desks so it's all action around here! One of the more intriguing developments I've seen since the last eBusiness News is Google's new operating system, Chrome OS. Google are a bit like Apple in that they tend to take things to an extreme. Rather than accept compromise and create something that is a balance of attributes, they take a particular idea and see just how far they can push it. Chrome OS is a perfect example of that mindset. The thinking behind it is that for many people, everything they do on a computer is done (or could be done) within a web browser. Apart from the obvious thing you do with a web browser (look at websites!) it can also let you: * Read / write email (Gmail) * Chat online (Google Chat) * Manage contacts (Salesforce) * Create text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations (Google Docs) * Manage your photo collection (Picassa) * Watch videos (YouTube) * Do your accounting (Xero) * Manage your tasks (Remember The Milk) * Manage projects (Basecamp) * Create flowcharts and diagrams (Gliffy) and hundreds of other tasks. And of course each of those tasks I've listed is not limited to just one supplier, but has many competing services. There are thousands of webmail providers, hundreds of video sharing sites, and so on. "Well," the smarty-pants developers at Google thought, "why have a big complicated operating system like Windows or MacOS or Linux installed on your computer, when all you really need is a web browser? What's all that other stuff doing on your computer anyway?" And when you think about it that way, you realise that for many people the only thing their operating system does is act as a way to load up a browser. Gigabytes of code and complexity, all to run one program. When you look at the overall architecture of a typical computer it's very complex, with multiple layers stacked on top of each other starting with the bare electronics at the bottom and running up to the application (a browser in this case) sitting right at the top. The layers in the middle are the traditional operating system doing its thing to manage files, and drivers, and whatever other things operating systems do. Chrome OS, then, is literally just the Google Chrome web browser running on an absolutely minimal system that does nothing but load the browser as soon as it boots up. There's no desktop, no file manager, no control panel. When you boot it up (which takes something in the order of 3 seconds!) you're presented with a browser window taking up the whole screen, and that's it. Attempt to close it and it just comes straight back again. The *only* thing you can do is use the browser. See what I mean about taking an idea to the extreme just to see what happens? It sounds incredibly limited, and it is. But that limitation is entirely intentional. The result is to turn your computer into a simple window onto the Internet rather than a complex device designed for maximum flexibility. It's almost a return to the '70s popularity of "dumb terminals" connected to a central mainframe computer. Having played around with a beta of Chrome OS my first impression is that it is jaw-droppingly fast. Google Chrome is already a very fast browser, but when it's running on a stripped-down platform dedicated to doing nothing else it's simply stunning. Web pages appear in the blink of an eye, and complex web applications run as if they're local programs. I've never seen Google Docs respond the way it does under Chrome OS. For example, clicking the "Documents" link inside Chrome OS to open the Google Docs file manager (loading the document list off a Google server via the Internet) is actually faster than opening a file manager window on my local computer to see a list of files on my hard drive. Or as another example, think about how long it takes you to start a new word-processor document on your local computer: just launching the office suite takes several seconds. On Chrome OS starting a new document using Google Docs takes less than half a second. That sounds cool, but is an "Internet operating system" for everyone? Definitely not. IVT's Development Projects Manager, Luke Sparke, is a cynic who likes to cut down bold predictions about changes in the industry. Any time someone says "all applications will be online within X years" he starts laughing and asks how well that will work out for people who do video editing or graphic design. As Luke points out, the reality is that right now the bandwidth required to do things like deal with high-def video streams running at more than a gigabyte / minute just isn't practical. Bandwidth limitations apply more to some people than others, of course. My father lives in a rural area outside Bairnesdale in eastern Victoria, and he can't get hard-wired Internet connectivity at all. His only access to the Internet is via a wireless broadband connection to a provider's base station some kilometers away, with the result that his connection is very slow and has a minuscule monthly quota. When he wants to install a software update for his Mac it's not practical to pull it down using his Internet connection. I can download a 500MB update in a couple of minutes, burn it on a CD, put it in a padded envelope, mail it to him, and it's delivered to his door by Australia Post before the download would even be complete if he tried to fetch it himself. Obviously an Internet-based operating system would be a disaster for him! So what we see with Chrome OS isn't necessarily something that is going to be practical in the short term, and certainly not for all users. But it's still a fascinating example of an extreme thought-experiment that someone had the audacity to turn into a functioning prototype. For me personally it's something I've been expecting and hoping to see for a very long time, and given my workflow (which involves almost entirely online services) it would actually be a practical option. A computer that boots in 3 seconds, runs like Usain Bolt, and gives me access to the online services that take up 95% of my day is a very interesting proposition. I'll be running it on a spare laptop for a while as an experiment to see how much time I end up using it and how often I end up turning back to a traditional heavyweight operating system to get things done. PS: If you're interested in following the random thoughts of various IVT staff you can catch some of us on Twitter. twitter.com/ivt_updates (IVT's official "updates" stream) twitter.com/jonoxer (That's me!) twitter.com/neilevenden (Neil Evenden, Business Development Manager) twitter.com/lsparke (Luke Sparke, Development Projects Manager) twitter.com/holmesy (Matt Holmes, Senior Web Developer) twitter.com/twetwee (Jeffery Fernandez, Senior Application Developer) twitter.com/jschalken (Jesse Schalken, Application Developer)