John Paczkowski

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Google’s Chrome OS: “It Just Works”

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Speaking at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans this past July, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said of Google’s forthcoming Chrome OS, “Who knows what this thing is?”

Today, he found out. The operating system, a direct challenge to Microsoft Windows, was on display at a media gathering at the Google HQ this morning.

Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Matthew Papakipos, engineering director for Google Chrome OS, presided over the event, which the company described as a “technical announcement.”

That meant that Google (GOOG) was not releasing a beta of the operating system this week, as had been rumored.

That said, it was an overview of Chrome, as well as Google’s plans for its launch in 2010, so let the Chrome OS liveblogging begin:

  • There will be no beta today. Pichai says Google is still a year away from an official launch. However, the company is making the code available today.
  • Pichai says that a year after launch, the Chrome browser has some 40 millions users. He boasts about the browser’s speed, noting that it handles Javascript 39 times faster than Microsoft’s (MSFT) Internet Explorer. There will be three more big Chrome announcements sometime in the future: Chrome for Mac, Chrome for Linux and the debut of Chrome Extensions.
  • Google’s goal is to ensure that Web applications function as well as desktop apps. Pichai says that the company is figuring out a way for Web apps to safely take advantage of the operating system in the way desktop apps do. A few examples: Graphics, video/audio applications, real-time communication, notification and local storage.

    “By 2010 we expect to have all these things built into Chrome,” Pichai adds.

  • The advent of Chrome coincides with a perfect storm of converging trends, Pichai says, noting the tremendous popularity of netbooks during the recession, the growing acceptance of cloud apps and the rapid innovation in mobile devices. Smartphones are becoming more like laptops, Pichai adds, and laptops are becoming more like smartphones. Is there a better level of computing available for these devices?

    There is, according to Pichai, and Google believes it is Chrome OS.

  • Among Chrome OS’s advantages, Pichai says: Speed, simplicity and security. Every application will be a Web application. There will be no desktop apps. Chrome OS is essentially a browser with a few modifications. All data in the Chrome OS resides in the cloud. Pichai: “We want all of personal computing to work that way….If I lose my Chrome machine, I should be able to go out, buy a new [one] and re-create my previous computing experience easily.”

    Chrome OS will run completely inside the browser security model, he adds, noting that security is one of Google’s top priorities along with speed. “Turning on a PC should be like turning on your TV,” he says.

  • Chrome OS is very similar in appearance to the Chrome browser. “Chrome OS is Chrome,” says Pichai. Google made it look like a browser, because the browser is familiar.
  • And indeed, Chrome OS does look quite a bit like a browser. Multiple apps load into tabs, for example. It also features “Panels,” which Pichai describes as persistent lightweight windows. “All Chrome data resides in the cloud. Anything you put in the machine is immediately available to you anywhere.”
  • As netbooks become more advanced and battery life improves, they will evolve into entertainment devices, says Pichai, who notes that via Google Books, a netbook can become an e-reader, and, through YouTube, a video device.
  • A quick demo of the user interface, which seems very simple and intuitive. “It just works,” says Pichai in an unintentional nod to Apple (AAPL).

    An interesting remark: Anyone who writes an app for the Web has written an app for Chrome, says Pichai, joking that Microsoft is already developing for it.

  • Speed, simplicity and security, says Pichai. We’re trying to make the computing experience delightful.
  • With that, Pichai hands the stage over to Engineering Director Matt Papakipos.

  • Papakipos, too, offers the “we want to make computing delightful” sound byte and notes once again that turning on the PC should be like turning on the TV.
  • Chrome OS eliminates the bootloader, auto-launching the browser. The OS also auto-updates itself, making sure that it’s always current with security patches, etc. Everything from the firmware to the kernel is secured with a cryptographic signature to ensure a secure boot. In the event malware is detected, the system repairs itself automatically.
  • The basic application security protocol for current operating systems allows apps the same privileges as the user. This presents obvious security issues. Whenever you install a new app, you’re taking a risk, says Papakipos.

    But Web applications like those that Chrome OS use, are different. They are Web apps, so they don’t have system-level privileges. Additionally, all apps run in secured sandboxes that are separate from one other and from the OS. Finally, all apps must be signed and verified before each use.

  • In terms of file systems, Chrome’s is locked down. It’s a read-only root-file system, obviously quite different from other operating systems. All user data are encrypted and synched to the cloud. Essentially, Google uses the PC for caching. Again, if you should lose your machine, you buy a new one, fire it up and it synchs with the cloud, restoring your previous computing experience.
  • How will Google bring Chrome OS to market? The company is working with vendors to specify reference hardware. You cannot download and install Chrome on just any device, you will have to purchase a Chrome device. Google is looking at a launch window of late 2010, before the holidays.
  • Google sounds very concerned about the end-user Chrome OS experience. Pichai says the company wants to ensure that the displays, keyboard, etc., on the netbooks that run Chrome are robust and easy to use.
  • Pichai wraps things up, but before the Q&A, we’re shown a short explanatory video. “The first thing I want to do when I fire up my computer is browse the Internet….If there isn’t any Internet, I might not even use my computer….What if when you pressed on, your PC turned on, what if your operating system was more like a Web browser…what if it was a browser?…Chrome OS is a totally rethought computer that lets you focus on the Internet, which is what most of use our computers for these days anyway.”
  • Q&A

    At this point, Pichai opens the event to questions:

    If you’re specifying hardware components, do you must have an idea of what they’ll cost?

    A: We expect Chrome netbooks to be in the price range of what people have come to expect….We are not specifying a price target. Price will be determined at the OEM level.

    Will the APIs support W3C standards?

    A: We’re working very closely with the W3C to standardize as much as we can….In general, we want to see everything standardized across multiple browsers.

    Will there be an application store?

    A: The Web offers hundreds of millions of applications. Our job is to make people aware of them.

    What about desktop applications that are not available on the Web?

    A: We expect most of our users to have a second machine at home….Chrome OS is about a delightful experience on the Web….If you’re a lawyer spending your entire day on contracts, etc., this is not the machine for you.

    Will you support Microsoft Silverlight?

    A: In the case of certain selection plug-ins, we are working to integrate them. No comment beyond that.

    Since Chrome is open source, could people build their own variations?

    A: Yes. We expect people will do many interesting things with it.

    Do you see Chrome running on laptops or desktops?

    A: We’re initially focused on netbook-like form factors–clamshells, etc. That said, the OS is being developed to work on other devices.

    Is there any level of offline access? What happens when I’m on a plane and don’t want to pay for Wi-Fi?

    A: Chrome devices are primarily intended to be Internet-connected. That said, it will have some caching abilities so, for example, you could play a game offline.

    Virtualization?

    A: Yes. You could run Chrome today on a virtual machine.

    Are you working with outfits like Adobe to, say, build a Web-friendly version of Photoshop?

    A: We’re very excited by things like Photoshop on the Web and we’re working hard to make that possible.

    Will Android apps work on Chrome? Are there plans for third-party apps?

    A: [Pichai dodges this one.] If it’s a Web app, it will work on Chrome. The Web works very, very well for our purposes.

    Will Chrome work on both X86 and ARM?

    A: Yes.

    Is there a direct business model for Chrome OS or is this another variation of the-more-people-that-use-the-Web-the-better-for-Google?

    A: We are working with partners. No plans for advertising. That said, Pichai notes again that anything that runs on the Web will run on Chrome. And of course, AdWords does, indeed, run on the Web.

    [Sergey Brin joins the Q&A]

    Do you want Android Apps to run on Chrome?

    A: We are focused on creating the use case in which everything is a Web application, but hopefully we can do more in the future.

    How does Chrome handle peripherals? Can it print?

    A: Most keyboards, cameras, phones, etc., will work. In terms of printing…yes, Chrome OS will print and we’re working hard to make that possible.

    What is Chrome’s strategic position for Google?

    A: [Brin]: Call us dumb businessmen, but we really focus on user needs rather than focus on business strategies. We believe that the Web platform is a much simpler way of computing for individuals to use, and that’s a very important need in the market right now. That’s what we’re trying to fulfill.


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