Misconceptions and misinformation have surrounded the Chrome OS almost since the day it was announced. This week's press conference at Google's Mountain View, Calif., campus helped to clear the air, but uncertainty about what the search giant's new OS has to offer still remains.
The full picture of the Chrome OS will become clearer as time rolls on. For now, if you want to understand what the Chrome OS is, you first have to understand what it isn't.
1. It's not Linux
True, the Chrome OS is based on the Linux kernel, just as it draws from a number of other open source projects, including Moblin and Ubuntu. All the more reason why the Chrome OS itself should be open source.
But none of that will matter to consumers who buy Chrome OS devices. Booting the Chrome OS takes you directly to the Chrome browser. There's no splash screen, no progress meter, and no tedious initialization process. Right now, the whole boot cycle takes just seven seconds -- and according to Google VP of product management Sundar Pichai, Google is "working really, really hard" to make it even faster.
Users won't have to worry about maintaining a Linux system, either. Updates and patches will be delivered automatically over the Web, and the OS itself will make sure you have the latest ones installed.
In short, a Chrome OS device will no more feel like Linux than your home router, TV set-top box, or smartphone does -- any of which could be running Linux right now. So if it's a Linux desktop you want, get Ubuntu; but if a fast, seamless Web experience appeals to you, the Chrome OS might be right up your alley.
2. It's not Android
Google turned a lot of heads when it unveiled its Android smartphone OS platform two years ago. When it announced the Chrome OS in July, it sparked lots of speculation that Google was planning to unify the handheld and desktop experiences in a way that would put Apple and Microsoft to shame.
No such luck. The Chrome OS doesn't try to replicate Android's desktop, widgets, app store, or APIs, and the Android browser still isn't Chrome.
Don't expect to see the Chrome OS running on smartphones any time soon, either. Google is working with manufacturing partners to create reference designs for Chrome OS devices, and their form factor is very specific: netbook-like appliances.
The initial Chrome OS devices won't quite be PCs, but they won't be phones, either. They will be small, clamshell machines equipped with full-sized keyboards and touchpads. Unlike most notebooks, however, they won't have hard drives -- just solid-state storage.
So don't think of Chrome OS as the next generation of Android, or the bridge between smartphones and PCs. Instead, think of Chrome OS devices as "netbooks 2.0," rethought and reworked for Web-centric computing.
3. It's not a Windows killer
If you're chomping at the bit to download the Chrome OS and try it out on your own hardware, don't hold your breath. Although Google is making the Chrome OS source code available under an open source license, the long-term goal isn't to develop another all-purpose consumer OS to compete with Windows or Mac OS X.
Instead, the Chrome OS will come pre-installed on the unique new devices that Google is now designing with its hardware partners. "You will have to go and buy a Chrome OS device," says Google's Pichai -- not the Chrome OS by itself.
And don't plan on buying a Chrome OS device and then clearing out Chrome OS for Windows, either. Onboard storage will be limited on Chrome OS devices, and they will lack the traditional PC BIOS. In its place will be a streamlined firmware designed specifically to support Google's Web-centric computing model.
On the plus side, tight integration with the hardware means Web applications running on the Chrome OS will be able to take advantage of such features as multicore threading and GPU acceleration.
On the minus side, it means Chrome OS isn't just a new take on the same old PCs and laptops. It's a whole new way of doing things, and there's no going halfway: You're either in or you're out.
4. It won't run your favorite apps
When Google first announced the Chrome OS, it sparked lots of speculation about what applications the new platform would support. Would it ship with OpenOffice.org? What about WINE, the Windows-apps-on-Linux tool?
Surprise! The Chrome OS won't ship with any applications -- and users won't be able to install any, either. "In Chrome OS, every application is a Web application," says Google's Pichai. "There are no conventional desktop applications."
With a Chrome OS device, you won't just check your e-mail on the Web. You'll also write letters, create spreadsheets, watch videos, listen to music, and chat with your friends using Web-based applications.
For most users, that will mean learning new ways of doing things. For example, you will be able to mount a USB drive on a Chrome OS device, but it might not know what to do with the files on it without help from outside applications.
By way of example, Pichai demonstrated how you could open an Excel spreadsheet on a Chrome OS device using Microsoft's forthcoming Excel 2010 Web App. "It turns out Microsoft launched a killer app for Chrome OS," he said. Sure -- just as long as you're content to use the Web-based version, rather than the real Excel.
5. It's not coming soon
If you still can't wait to try out the Chrome OS, you're in for another disappointment. Although Google is making the code available now, actual retail products based on the new OS aren't expected to appear until late 2010.
"Our target time is end of next year. We want to be there for the holiday season," says Pichai.
That's far enough away that Pichai declined to speculate on what Chrome OS devices might eventually cost when they do ship. Furthermore, he said, Google had given its hardware partners no target price range to shoot for. Given their limited hardware, Chrome OS devices are expected to cost considerably less than today's netbooks -- but it's just too early to tell.
While you wait, for the best approximation of what life will be like running Chrome OS, you can download Google's Chrome browser for Windows or Linux (and, soon, Mac OS X).