How the Google Chrome OS Works


Computer Hardware Image Gallery Google's Chrome OS aims to eliminate most local data storage and push you to spend even more time online. See more computer hardware pictures.
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The Internet has become a central part of the computer experience. Before the Web caught fire in the late 1990s, home computing was largely a singular experience. Computer users created documents on a PC and saved those files to a hard or floppy disk, and maybe worked within a local area network at the office. File sharing usually meant walking a disk to another machine.

These days, computing is a Web-centric experience, and you perform many of your Internet tasks through software called a Web browser. That browser, which may be a program such as Firefox or Internet Explorer, helps you retrieve information from the Internet multiple times per day, integrate it with other online documents and share data galore with people all over the planet. Google is trying to reshape the computer experience by using its understanding of the Web to create the new Chrome operating system (OS).

Traditional operating systems, such as Windows, require a lot of hard drive space and demand some work on your part. You have to install the programs you want individually, manage OS and security updates and manage device drivers, too.

Google's Chrome OS aims to overhaul that paradigm. With Chrome, the browser actually is the OS -- in this case, the Chrome OS builds on the Google browser of the same name. In total, the Chrome OS is built on an open-source version of Linux and integrated with the Chrome browser, a simple media player...and that's it.

Google embraced the concept of an ultra-simple, Web-centric OS in large part due to the huge recent success of netbooks. Netbooks are small laptop computers that are designed to let users access the Web, and not much more; they're inexpensive and feature-limited hardware, and they aren't built for high-powered applications like Photoshop, for example.

Unlike Windows, Chrome won't be available as a download. It'll be pre-installed by netbook manufacturers who adhere to Google's hardware specifications. Chrome is designed to run best on solid-state storage systems as opposed to traditional spinning hard drives, in part because solid-state drives are less prone to failure, but also because they're less spacious -- remember, Google wants you to store your data online. And because the OS uses Web-based applications, you don't need local storage for software, either.

It's no accident that Google stresses the online aspects of Chrome. The entire Chrome project revolves around the cloud computing model. That fancy term simply means that all of your data and applications are stored online, in the "cloud," so that you can access them from any computer, anywhere.

The company says this model will help it develop a better overall OS experience and focus on building an OS with improved speed, security and simplicity. By hacking out all of the non-Web related functions of a traditional OS, Google indicates these goals should be easier to achieve. And the company isn't doing the design work alone. Because this is an open-source project (under the name Chromium OS), Google gets feedback from savvy software developers all over the world.

It's important to remember that Google doesn't intend for Chrome OS to be your primary computer's operating system. Instead, the company sees a Chrome OS netbook as a secondary computer that you use once you're done with the heavy-duty applications you use on a more powerful office computer.

Like most Google products, Chrome OS is free. That fact, along with the power of Google's marketing and distribution, should grab your attention. Keep reading to see how Chrome might alter the landscape of computing as you know it.

 

Chrome OS Design and Operation

The Chrome OS is designed to run on small, lightweight netbooks that have little storage capacity.
The Chrome OS is designed to run on small, lightweight netbooks that have little storage capacity.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Chrome is a seriously stripped-down, fast OS. Because Chrome supports only Web capabilities, it can do away with much of the bulk and unnecessary system checks that slow a traditional OS. For example, during start up the OS firmware doesn't have to search for floppy disk drives or other hardware that few current computers continue to use -- a task that other operating systems still perform.

Thus, Chrome is a much smaller OS that consumes almost no disk space, especially when compared to Windows. Windows 7, for example, requires about 60 times more disk space than Chrome (source: Mearian).

One nice result of these differences is speed. A fairly fast Windows machine might finish booting in around 45 seconds. In contrast, Google wants Chrome netbooks to be up and running in 7 seconds or less (source: Tweney).

Google works closely with computer makers to ensure that Chrome systems are equipped with hardware that lets the OS run optimally. Chrome runs on x86-based computers, as well as those with ARM processors.

Unsurprisingly, the Chrome OS user interface looks much like the Chrome browser. Beyond this browser-like OS, these netbooks will have no pre-installed software. There's an integrated media player that lets you watch movies, play music and view photos when you're offline. Adobe Flash is already integrated into the Chrome browser, so you can view all Flash Web sites, too.

Because there's almost no on-board storage, you won't even have to worry about installing or uninstalling other programs. When you want to write a report, for example, you just access a Web-based word processing application. Of course, data bandwidth challenges prohibit certain types of work. Video editing, for instance, won't be happening on a Chrome system anytime soon.

For more basic computing tasks, though, you should be able to find applications that suit your needs, using Google's Chrome Web Store. Similar to Apple's App Store and the Android Market, the Chrome Web Store will offer applications for a huge variety of tasks.

There are other major differences between Chrome and established operating systems. In a traditional OS, it's vital that you install device drivers that let your computer work with other hardware. If you use Chrome, Google reasons that the primary third-party device you need is a printer -- but the company doesn't want you to have to install drivers. Instead, you'll use Google's Cloud Print service, which lets you print from any computer to any printer that's connected to the Internet.

Unlike other operating systems, Chrome doesn't bombard you with an endless series of OS update alerts. When you connect your netbook to the Internet, Google updates Chrome for you automatically. The whole idea is to make your computing experience easier and more secure, with less fuss and frustration.

The Future of Chrome OS

It's too early to tell how the majority of computer users feel about saving their private, secure data on Google's servers, as the Chrome OS requires.
It's too early to tell how the majority of computer users feel about saving their private, secure data on Google's servers, as the Chrome OS requires.
Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Thinkstock

In spite of its Google branding, Chrome is anything but a sure bet in the OS arena. At its core, Chrome is a variation of Linux, which has been around in various incarnations since the early 1990s. In other words, why would Chrome succeed where other versions of Linux have failed?

There are plenty of challenges for Google to address. One issue that may drive away users is that without an Internet connection, a Chrome computer's capabilities are severely restricted. Sans Web, there's simply not much this kind of machine can do, because it can't access any data or even programs other than the included media player.

Many users may also be turned off by the idea of storing all data online. Most people are used to saving at least a few critical documents locally, and being separated from that data may be too much to bear.

Privacy issues are another concern. It's one thing to store a list of passwords or important financial information on your own hard drive. It's quite another to story that information on a Google-owned server, no matter how many assurances the company touts in its privacy policies.

Other users might be confused by the fact that Google already offers an open-source OS called Android, which is becoming increasingly popular for smartphones. Publicly, Google insists that there are differences between Android and Chrome. It says Chrome is simply for people who spend the bulk of their time using their computers for Web purposes, and that although Android does the same things, it also has a lot of non-Web related capabilities. However, the two operating systems do overlap and may converge in the future.

Google may also encounter resistance from users who don't like low-quality netbooks. But those people may not have to wait long for Chrome to appear on better PCs. There's a good chance that if Chrome is successful on netbooks, Google will begin offering an updated version of the OS for more powerful laptop and desktop computers. However, the first releases are geared toward netbook offerings from the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Lenovo and Asus.

There's also the issue of control. People are concerned that Chrome puts them totally at Google's mercy, with less control over their own data. To counter these issues, Google relies heavily on the goodwill it has generated over the years. And because many businesses already rely on a suite of Google products, such as Google Voice, Google Docs and Gmail, Google is betting that people will be likely to adopt the Chrome OS, if only due to inertia.

It's too early in the Chrome game to see exactly where it will end. Perhaps Google will make substantial inroads into the OS market, further angering rival Microsoft. Or perhaps users will see Chrome as too restrictive and too skimpy -- even for a secondary computer.

In time, we'll see just how Google's Chrome gamble plays out. The company that revolutionized the way we use the Internet just might transform our concept of computing as a whole, too.

For more on operating systems, Google and other related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

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Sources

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