Inside Google's new Chrome OS 'Chromebook'

Google's vision of a cloud-only notebook is now here -- how it compares to traditional laptops and to tablets like the iPad

It's been a year since Google first said it would deliver a browser-only operating system for laptops called Chrome OS. Today, Google previewed the real thing at a time the iPad slate concept has already gained remarkable traction by businesses and users alike. Actual Chrome OS-based "Chromebook" laptops won't be available until mid-2011, with Acer and Samsung expected to offer the first models. Google said pricing was unknown and would be up to each device maker. The Chrome OS itself is still a work in progress, said Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management at Google.

"It was more complex to do this than expected, especially because you couldn't build Web apps at the scale and power of the hardware available" 13 years ago when the concept of a Web-based computer first was kicked around at Sun Microsystems, said Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Now with the advancements in cloud computing back ends, public networks, and HTML5, "there's the opportunity to have a third option," alongside Windows and Mac OS X, he said.

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The Chromebook is designed to run everything from the Web. The operating system presents the Chrome 9 browser as the user interface, with app icons in its main window -- the same interface as the forthcoming Chrome 9 browser for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. When disconnected, a Chromebook uses HTML5's offline storage capability to continue working in cloud apps such as Google Docs -- or it will once Google updates Google Docs to add this capability, as it plans to do soon. Other HTML5-savvy Web apps will also work in disconnected mode.

The only way to run traditional apps on a Chromebook is through a desktop virtualization client such as Citrix Receiver, which will be available for Chrome OS. Citrix Receiver is widely used today on Google's Android and Apple's iOS mobile operating systems; Citrix clients are available for Mac OS X and Windows as well.

The Chrome OS can sync with the contents of your Chrome browser on a PC, Mac, or other device; this lets you use any computer as a surrogate to your Chromebook. Users choose which data and settings are synced across the browsers they have access to. Meanwhile, a guest mode keeps guest users' activities and content private. Google is initially relying on a Google account for sign-in but is working to support other identity systems such as OpenID.

By default, all user data is encrypted on a Chromebook's internal storage cache, and the Chrome OS automatically updates itself so that users always have the current version. Its "verified boot" feature, enabled through a hardware-based Trusted Protection Module (TPM), detects whether a Chromebook has been hacked, so users can revert to the last known safe configuration when launching the Chome OS.

Google says this secured-appliance approach should make the Chromebook popular with enterprise CIOs seeking to get out of the laptop management business. However, doing do means dumping all corporate apps in favor of HTML5-based Web apps such as Google Docs.

The Chrome OS runs directly on PC-style hardware, providing what Google claims is a simpler experience. One result of the browser-on-the-hardware approach is near-instant boot and wake, as there is no "fat" OS to load, nor drivers and application support files.

The company has produced a reference hardware design for a laptop that it expects PC makers to adopt as a baseline configuration, with a 12.1-inch screen, Intel Atom processor, full-size keyboard (without Caps Lock or function keys), touchpad, USB ports, solid-state storage, and Webcam. Other ports such as HDMI will be supported at some point, the company said. Printing will have to be done through Google's forthcoming CloudPrint service, which lets the device print to Internet-attached printers; USB-connected printers won't be supported. Google is making beta Chromebooks available to select users for testing later this month.

The Chrome OS could run on other chips in the future in addition to Intel's Atom, Google said. It could also support tablet-style devices; although the product team has focused on a laptop design with a full-size keyboard because it prefers that input method, the on-screen keyboards and touch-based interaction of tablets are supported by the Chrome OS. Supported USB devices will include keyboard, mice, cameras, and storage.

The Chromebooks will ship with built-in Wi-Fi and 3G capabilities, so they can be connected most of the time. In the United States, the chosen carrier for at least the first models is Verizon Wireless, which will offer pay-as-you go pricing in both per-megabyte and unlimited-usage day-pass plans on its CDMA 3G network. Chromebook buyers will get 100MB of data service per month from Verizon for the first 24 months they own the device; it was unclear how that would affect the devices' pricing.

Unlike with the pay-as-you-go AT&T 3G service for Apple's iPad, the Chromebooks' Verizon pay-as-you go service does not auto-renew unless explicitly canceled. Chromebooks' 3G radio also works with GSM-based 3G networks for international use, and Google said it expects to have a major carrier partner in each country the devices are released in.

Google's desktop browser is also getting a makeover; Chrome 9 should be available by early January. It will have a shortcuts feature in its updated Chrome 9 desktop Web browser that lets you use one-letter strings to call up favorite links, as well as fast PDF rendering and a new API called WebGL for 3D media that taps into the computer's graphics processor. A new adaptive compiler called Crankshaft can render pages 50 times faster, Google claims. The new browser has simplified the UI; automatically installs security updates; eliminates interrupting modal dialog boxes; can put some Web plug-ins into sandboxes so that they can't transmit malware to other areas in the browser; and can sync user-determined content such as bookmarks across all your computers. (That syncing also works with Chromebooks.)

In addition, Google said 120 million users now use Chrome as their primary browser.

Google also showed off its Chrome Web Store, which was launched today. It has Web-based apps for sale à la Apple's App Store. Many of the apps work offline, once loaded, due to the Chrome browser's support for HTML5's offline storage capability. Apps in the Chrome Web Store work in the desktop versions of the Chrome browser, but not in the version used in the Android mobile OS.

This article, "Inside Google's new Chrome OS 'Chromebook,'" was originally published at Follow the latest developments in business technology news and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter.

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