Chrome OS: Cloud computing made real

Forget Windows. So long Mac OS X. Google's OS lifts computing out of yesterday's desktop paradigm and into the cloud

Chrome OS must be a dream come true for Google-versus-Microsoft fanboys. Rumors that Google would ship a desktop OS first flew back in 2006, but the project in question turned out to be for internal use only. Then came Android, and reports that Google's smartphone OS would soon make the leap to more traditional PCs set the market abuzz again -- although many remained skeptical. Now the announcement of Chrome OS should brush any lingering doubts aside.

Not everyone is impressed with the search giant's latest move, however. My colleague Randall Kennedy says Chrome OS has "an ice cube's chance in Hell" of competing successfully with Windows or Mac OS X, citing the overwhelming effort needed to duplicate the full range of device drivers and applications available on those platforms today. Randall just doesn't see that happening, and for that matter neither do I.

[ Find out what InfoWorld contributors Randall Kennedy and Savio Rodrigues think of Google's newly announced OS ]

But Chrome OS isn't meant to be a pound-for-pound competitor to Windows. Though it's built on the Linux kernel, it's really something brand new. In fact, when we look back 10 years from now, the debut of Google's Chrome OS may well mark the moment when cloud computing finally became real.

Chrome OS: Custom-built for the cloud

It's particularly telling that Chrome OS will ship with support for both Intel and ARM processors. Google reps say the OS will initially target netbooks, and low-powered ARM chips are expected to play an increasing role in that market.

Even more interesting, however, is the revelation that the heart of the Chrome OS user experience is Google's Chrome browser -- and that booting a Chrome OS device should get you "onto the Web in seconds," according to the search giant's press release. In fact, the browser may be the only traditional application that runs on Chrome OS. Quoth the release: "For application developers, the Web is the platform" (emphasis mine).

This sounds an awful lot like the type of device I've talked about before, which I've dubbed "the Invisible PC." Rather than the traditional desktop model of applications running on a monolithic OS, in this new mode of computing the PC will all but disappear, leaving little more than a window to the Web. Desktop applications will be replaced by Web-based services, with computation and storage handled in the cloud.

It's fair to be skeptical, but don't underestimate the extent to which Web applications have already supplanted desktop software. Enterprises have been slow to adopt Web-based alternatives (and with good reason), but individual users have embraced them wholeheartedly. Remember when you had to install a special client program to read your e-mail? My mom doesn't. To her, e-mail is synonymous with Web-based services such as Gmail, MSN, and Yahoo Mail. Expect more categories of applications to go this way as Web technologies continue to mature.

Google isn't alone in pursuing the Invisible PC market, either. You could argue that devices like Nokia's Internet Tablet and the iPod Touch were the pioneers in this category, and Palm's WebOS shares Google's philosophy of Web-based application development. But Chrome OS promises a number of advantages that make it an ideal fit for today's lightweight netbooks and beyond.

The engine beneath the Chrome

For starters, Chrome is arguably the most technologically advanced browser in the world. Its multiprocess design, where each session exists independently from the others, more closely resembles a traditional OS than it does any other current browser, and its security model can't be beat. What's more, Chrome includes support for Google Gears, which gives it an advantage when Internet access is spotty.

As I mentioned before, Chrome OS runs on a Linux kernel, but that will hardly be relevant to application developers. Apps will be Web-based, but because the Chrome browser was designed with desktop PCs in mind, developers won't be limited to the stripped-down capabilities available in most smartphones and other devices. Google is one of the biggest advocates of the forthcoming HTML 5 specification, portions of which have already made their way into current-generation browsers, including Chrome. (And if you want to get an idea of the kind of applications made possible by HTML 5, look no further than Mozilla Bespin.)

Because Chrome OS is based on the open source Linux kernel, however -- and Google plans to open source the higher-level bits later this year -- the community will be free to lend a hand patching bugs and fixing security vulnerabilities as they appear.

Death to the desktop?

And there's more. Between the kernel and the Chrome interface, Google says it has developed "a new window manager" to handle rendering the GUI. Details are still scant, but from the sound of it, Google has opted to skip Gnome and KDE, and possibly even toss out the venerable X Window Manager itself. If so, Chrome OS is definitely not just another desktop Linux distro. In fact, it might not even qualify as a desktop OS at all.

How so? Consider how bloated mainstream desktops have become over the years. Whether your choice is Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows, your desktop greets you with countless menus, configuration panels, and applications, ranging from simple Internet clients to full-blown multimedia suites. Google's vision is different. "Google Chrome OS," Google's press release explains, "is being created for people who spend most of their time on the Web." If that's the case, then an old-style desktop is total overkill.

If your applications are Web-based, you don't need a software installer. Similarly, if all your data is stored in the cloud, the need for a full-featured file manager diminishes significantly, and you certainly won't need one of those fancy desktop search engines that are so much in vogue lately. You also won't need a backup manager, a disk defragmenter, a virus scanner, or a file-compression program. In fact, you probably don't need a desktop at all. What you'd really want is a lean, fast, responsive, simple UI -- something like you'd expect in a consumer electronics device -- and if Google is thinking like I'm thinking, expect Chrome OS to deliver just that.

Of course, we won't know what Chrome OS is really like until more details emerge later this year. But if it really is all that I think it could be, Chrome OS will bring changes to the PC market that have been a long time coming. We have a name for that: evolution.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.