Chrome OS vs. Android: What's the difference?

Article copyright 2010 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Amidst all the chatter about Android Gingerbread these days, another Google operating system is starting to gain an increasing amount of attention. We're talking, of course, about Google's Chrome OS -- the lightweight, Web-centric software announced by Google last summer and kept under development ever since.

Chrome OS vs. Android

From the looks of it, Google's first Chrome OS products could be in front of us any day now. In an interview with The New York Times, Linus Upson, Google's engineering VP in charge of Chrome, says the company will introduce a lightweight Chrome OS netbook before the year's end. According to The Times, the Chrome OS system will be "manufactured by another company and branded by Google" -- similar to what we saw done with the Android-powered Nexus One (and what we're expecting to see done with the rumored Nexus S, aka the "Nexus Two").

But a lot's changed since Google first gave us a glimpse at its Chrome OS. Android has become a major force in the smartphone market. And tablets have become the hot new commodity, replacing netbooks and lightweight notebooks on plenty of people's personal wishlists.

So where will Chrome OS fit into the picture -- and how will it be different from the existing Android operating system? Here's a breakdown of everything we know, based on what Google's told us over the past 17 months.

[UPDATE (12/9/10): Google's Chrome OS notebook: My first impressions]

Chrome OS will be mainly for netbooks.

While Android caters to the smartphone and tablet market, Google's Chrome OS is expected to stick mainly to netbooks and other lightweight computers. During a talk at the Web 2.0 Summit last month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Chrome OS would be for "keyboard-based solutions that are of the traditional PC variety." Android, in contrast, is "optimized for things that involve touch in some form," Schmidt said.

(You can see the full video of Schmidt's remarks here.)

In their initial description of Chrome OS, Google engineers expressed a similar vision:

Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks. Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web, and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems.

Google's Upson hinted that Chrome OS could eventually reach other platforms -- possibly even tablets and TVs -- and Google co-founder Sergey Brin has suggested that Android and Chrome OS could one day converge. But for now, at least, it appears Chrome's focus will be largely on netbook-type devices.

Chrome OS will revolve around the cloud.

Systems running Google's Chrome OS will operate almost entirely off of the Internet. In fact, Google has said its Chrome OS systems won't allow you to install programs or store much data locally; instead, all apps will run from the Web and all of your information -- including preferences and settings -- will be stored online, too.

This video does a pretty good job of illustrating the concept:

Odds are, a Chrome OS netbook wouldn't be your primary computer; rather, it'd be a companion device that'd you use on the go.

Chrome OS will be speedy and secure.

Because of its cloud-centric strategy, Chrome OS is expected to boot up within as little as three seconds. And since your apps and personal data won't be stored on the system, you'll have less to worry about in terms of viruses and other security threats.

The notion is that you could easily move from one Chrome OS netbook to another without seeing any difference; your programs, settings, and data would instantly pull up and give you an identical experience regardless of your device. And if you were to ever lose your Chrome OS computer, all you'd have to do is change your password; since nothing of yours was ever stored on the system, there'd be no need for concern.

Chrome OS will have a very simple interface.

Chrome OS

Unlike Android, Chrome OS will be a bare-bones, simplistic interface. Picture Google's Chrome browser -- that's pretty much it.

"When people look at Chrome OS, they're going to be like, 'It's just a browser, there's nothing exciting here," Upson tells The Times. "Exactly. It's just a browser, there's nothing exciting here -- that's the point."

So what does that actually mean? When you boot up Chrome OS, you'll be looking at what's essentially a Chrome browser window. A drop-down menu will hold icons for all of your various applications. The apps will run in browser-style tabs that can be dragged between different windows, just like Web pages in Google's Chrome browser. You'll get notifications at the bottom of your screen letting you know about new e-mails, instant messages, and so forth.

Check out this video to see the interface in action:

Chrome OS won't run Android apps.

Remember: Chrome OS isn't Android. And that means Android apps won't run on Chrome. Android apps have to be installed locally on a device to work, and Chrome OS runs only Web-based applications.

Chrome OS won't run standard PC software.

See the "cloud only" explanation above. Instead of locally installed programs, Chrome OS systems will utilize Web-based software -- Gmail, Google Docs, or Microsoft's Office 365 suite, for example. Google will also support a Chrome app store that'll offer an array of cloud-based applications designed specifically for Chrome OS use.

Chrome OS will automatically and continually update itself.

Android Power Twitter

Chrome OS will actually prevent applications from altering the operating system; in fact, the core components of Chrome OS will be stored in read-only memory. The software will regularly update itself and fix any corrupted modules, theoretically preventing crashes and other software-related problems.

So there you have it: That's the bulk of what we know right now about Chrome OS and how it'll differ from Android. Stay tuned, though: If all goes as planned, we'll be hearing a lot more about Chrome -- not to mention Android Gingerbread -- in the weeks to come.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.

Article copyright 2010 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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