Google Releases Chrome OS To Open Source

Google on Thursday released the code for its Chrome OS project to the open source community, removing any ambiguity that may have existed about its intention to tip the Microsoft Windows cash cow with an easy-to-use Linux based alternative.

At a press conference at the Mountain View, Calif.-based Googleplex, Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Matthew Papakipos, engineering director, offered a tantalizing glimpse of what Chrome OS consists of today and where Google wants the open source community to help take it.

Chrome OS is still about a year away from launch, and Google hasn't yet released a beta version. Nor is Google ready to start talking in detail about how it plans to bring Chrome OS to market, except to note that devices should arrive in time for the 2010 holiday season.

But in spite of these missing details, there are "important concepts" in the current Chrome OS build that will carry over to the final product, according to Pichai.

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Google's initial target with Chrome OS is netbooks with solid state drives that support only Web applications, he said. It's a narrow focus, but one that reflects the growing prevalence of cloud computing and Google's goal of offering users a simple, yet high performance experience.

In Chrome OS, every application is a Web application, which means users won't have to install programs or software. Instead, they'll just click on links and use Web applications. "Google's goal is to make Web applications function as well as desktop applications," Pichai said. "All data in Chrome OS is in the cloud, which means it's instantly available to you anywhere."

Google plans to work with hardware partners to bring to market "slightly larger" Chrome OS netbooks with larger keyboards, Pichai said. In doing so, Google is taking a page from the Apple playbook by tightly integrating Chrome with the underlying hardware.

"We really want the software to understand the underlying hardware so that Chrome OS can be as fast as possible," Pichai said.

In both Chrome OS and the Chrome Web browser, Google has focused on speed, simplicity and security. Chrome OS in its current form takes just seven seconds to boot, and Google is trying to make that even faster, Pichai said. And because Chrome doesn't run conventional applications, it doesn't need to start up background services, which also leads to faster performance.

"We want Chrome to be blazingly fast. We want it to be more like a television than a computer," said Pichai.

Next: Security Challenges In Chrome OS

Google is handling security in a new way in Chrome OS, designing it so that users don't install binaries on the system. Instead, Google will completely manage the system, and Chrome OS will run completely within the browser security model, Papakipos told attendees.

A new feature called Verified Boot will ensure that Chrome OS automatically updates at every startup, using cryptographic keys to check if any changes have taken place within the kernel and root file system, Papakipos said.

Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and president of Technology, made a surprise appearance during the Q&A session and offered the following rationale for Google's Chrome OS strategy. "Machines that are stateless and more cache-like are much easier and simpler for individuals to use," said Brin. "That's a very important need in the market right now and that's what we're trying to fill."

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft partners are skeptical of Chrome OS and feel that Google is underestimating the challenge it faces in bringing the fight to Windows.

"Microsoft has offerings that comprise the entire stack of applications from the desktop to the data center, and they all are designed to work together," said Michael Cocanower, president of Phoenix-based Microsoft solution provider ITSynergy. "You won't be able to realize the same synergies with an open source desktop OS that 'plays nicely with' a Microsoft server infrastructure."

Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft, Kirkland, Wash., said the real test for Google will lie in getting OEM partners to support Chrome OS.

"Microsoft prospered by getting OEMs on board, by hook or by crook, and it's an enormously powerful model: The vendor lets the OEM do all the heavy lifting and only has to drop code every now and then, and cash the checks," he said. "Without OEM support, Chrome will be just another in a long list of Microsoft competitors that never really touches the leader."

Still, it's safe to say that Google will be able to attract a quick following for Chrome by virtue of its potential to drive Linux on the desktop further into the mainstream.

Open sourcing Chrome OS will help Google gain the support of the Linux community, says John Locke, principal consultant at Freelock Computing, a Seattle-based open-source consultancy. "Google will probably get a lot more early adopters who will download Chrome OS and check it out. It's sure to generate a lot of buzz in the open source community."