Five Questions About Google Chrome OS

Google announced it will release a new operating system, the long-fabled Google OS, late Tuesday night. While details are currently limited to a short post on the Google Blog, the idea outlined is an operating system built on top of Linux and running primarily a web browser for access to online apps like Gmail, Google Docs and the rest of the Google suite.

Google says it’s working with netbook manufacturers to get Google Chrome OS-powered netbooks to the market in 2010, and it’s not hard to see how netbooks could benefit from the new, lightweight OS and its cloud-based apps.

But at the same time, Google’s announcement reads like classic vaporware, raising far more questions than it answers.

Is the world ready for the cloud?

Forget connection issues, Wi-Fi dead zones and the potential security and privacy risks involved with hosting your data in cloud, what about far more basic issues — how are you going to get music on your iPod? How will you run games? How will you print a document?

After all, Apple already made an admirable effort to turn the iPhone into a cloud-based computing system and we all know how that ended — with a native SDK that sent even the most successful web app developers scurrying to learn C.

Even Google quickly released a native search application for the iPhone, despite having already adapted most of its web-based offerings to work with the small screen. And while we’re huge fans of the potential that offline storage in HTML 5 offers, even we’re willing to admit that the web-based Gmail interface is dog slow compared to the iPhone-native Mail app.

Interestingly, Google isn’t the first company to try to turn its web-based apps into the basis for a lightweight operating system. Good OS previously announced Cloud, an operating system that “integrates a web browser with a compressed Linux operating system kernel for immediate access to the internet, integration of browser and rich client applications.”

Thus far, while Good OS has managed to find its way onto a few netbooks, the OS is far from a success.

Cross-Platform Web Apps?

Perhaps the most intriguing tidbit in Google’s announcement is the statement that the core building blocks of Chrome OS apps will be cross-platform.

It certainly sounds good, but we’re wondering how that’s going to work — in particular, how will offline data storage be handled? There’s the Gears plug-in for browsers, but Gears is rough around the edges and slow to update for new browser releases. For example, Gears still doesn’t work with the latest versions of Firefox or Safari (a beta version of Gears for Safari does exist, but it requires some workarounds to avoid bugs).

There’s a possibility HTML 5′s offline storage mechanism will solve this particular problem, but with IE8 offering little support for HTML 5, it isn’t going to be cross-platform. And it’s difficult to fault Microsoft for hesitating to support HTML 5, given that the spec is still a draft and subject to change.

Given the complexities involved, it seems unlikely that Chrome OS apps will be truly cross-platform — unless Google just means cross-platform in the sense that the apps will run in any web browser, but that’s hardly remarkable enough to tout in a press release.

A browser bundled with the OS, now where have we heard that before?

Google’s Chrome OS announcement says the Chrome web browser will be bundled with the operating system, which is quite simply “Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel.”

Given Microsoft’s history with bundling browsers into the OS and the subsequent anti-trust lawsuits, we assume Google is going to offer some desktop programming tools that will allow other browser makers to run their software on Chrome OS as well. If not, expect Google to experience its own dose of regulator wrath.

Will Chrome OS offer better privacy?

Google is already tracking your searches, the links you click, the e-mails you send and the sites you visit. Are you ready for Google to know every last detail of everything you do from the minute you turn on your netbook? While all that data is anonymized and (theoretically) not traceable to you, it may still give concerned users reason to pause.

Will Chrome OS offer improved security and virus protection?

Google says, as it did upon the announcement of the Chrome browser, that going back to the drawing board will mean a more secure system less prone to viruses and malware. That sounds good, but it also makes for an unknown, untested system. Which would you rather use, an OS like Unix that’s nearly 40 years old and has been attacked from every angle and patched over time, or a system that’s ten minutes old and sounds good on paper, but has no experience in the wild?

Conclusion

Perhaps we’re being overly hard on an operating system that is specifically targeted at netbooks — an underpowered and still very niche market — but Google’s announcement is uncharacteristically short on details, making it hard to see it as anything other than an attempt to generate hype.

However, if we are to assume Google will do a good enough job answering our last four questions relating to the technical and legal details of the new OS, it’s really the first question that’s the biggest. And, it may be rendered moot by the time Google Chrome OS is released to the consumer market.

Remember the video Google released a few weeks ago showing spot interviews with people on the street? Regular, non-technical Americans were asked generic questions about their web browser, and almost everyone showed some level of confusion about the difference between a browser, the web, an e-mail client, a search engine and even the computer itself. This general ignorance about under-the-hood computing is Google’s biggest opportunity to shine. If the company can offer a user experience that’s just a web browser, it may succeed in fully blurring the lines between computer, desktop and web among the average consumer who, frankly, couldn’t care less about the differences.

Google will need to work out a way for users to interface with common devices like cameras, iPods and printers — tying them to Picasa, Amazon (like the MP3 store partnership the companies have on Android) and Google Docs. But if it succeeds, the just-a-browser OS could become something of a hit despite the hurdles.

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