The 5 best and worst features of Google Chrome OS

Today, Google released the source code for Chrome OS and promised that devices will be shipping in about a year, in time for the 2010 holiday season. Chrome OS will run only on devices specifically manufactured for it and Google is dictating to manufacturers the hardware specifications. For instance, Chrome OS devices will be netbooks, will not include a hard drive, will have only solid state disks, will rely on specified WiFi chipsets/adapters for connectivity and must have full-sized keyboards, says Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product management.

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Google demonstrated a prototype of Chrome OS yesterday and invited the open source community to participate in its development. (It is available here: Chrome OS is lauded by its makers as a completely new method of personal computing and it does have a number of features that are intriguing. On the other hand, the device, as envisioned today, is really another incarnation of a concept that has been around a long while, the thin client mobile Internet device.

On the plus side, Google has promised that Chrome OS devices will have the following five goodies:

1. Speedy boot-up, as fast as three seconds. A Chrome OS device will not store any applications on the device itself. Nadda, none, zippo, says Pichai. Likewise, it will include only the hardware, right down to the component level, that Google has approved in its hardware reference specification. The only applications it will use are those that can be run from the cloud in a browser, the Chrome browser, to be specific. One of the primary reasons for this is to speed up boot time. With no local applications and limited hardware, the device doesn't need to run through long checklist looking for devices and drivers, loading programs into resident memory and so on. It should turn on like a television, says Pichai. Flip a switch and the within three seconds browser should be available, showing the most recent browser windows.

2. Security by default. The portion of the operating system needed to operate the device will reside in a read-only section of memory. The rest of the operating system is integrated with the Chrome browser and, like the browser, security updates require nothing more than a reboot. Chrome OS can run multiple Web applications in multiple tabs and each one is locked down from all others, so a vulnerability in one Web app can't lead to exposure in another. User data stored on the device, which is minimal, is encrypted. User data is limited to items such as user preferences. All other data will be stored in the cloud. User preferences will also be synched to a cloud account, much like any thin client. Should you lose the device, you would merely log in from another one and your data and preferences should be there.

3. Support for both x86 and ARM architectures. Google promises that it will be writing native code for both popular netbook CPUs.

4. The application menu. As new Web applications come online tweaked for Chrome OS, Chrome OS will showcase them on a permanent tab it now calls the application menu. This will help users find new applications. Developers with new apps will find this an easier method to showcase them, too. Any Web application that runs in a standards compliant browser should work on a Chrome OS device. But Chrome OS is focused on supporting new protocols such as HTML 5, which, among other improvements, natively supports rich media.

5. A surprising way to support Microsoft Office. If you ask a Google executive any question involving Microsoft, you'll hear the cliche answer -- that they company thinks only of users and not of potential competitors. But in one of the giggle-inducing moments of Thursday's demo, Pichai, showed how Chrome OS would handle Office documents -- via Microsoft Office Live, the free Web app version of Office available to Windows Live users. If a user clicks on an .xls document, Chrome launches Excel via the browser in Office Live. "Microsoft launched a killer app for Chrome OS . . . and is working very hard to do that," he quipped.

But Chrome OS also has a number of downsides:

1. It is considered a companion device. Google doesn't claim that this Web-only device is useful in all cases or to all people and in fact thinks that most people who buy it will also own a full-fledged PC. As the device will be too big to be a mobile phone, people will also still need one of those. The big lesson of the iPhone's success is that people want devices that do it all -- and preferably with thousands of downloadable applications, too. Chrome OS devices will neither do it all nor allow applications to be downloaded to the client.

2. Vague support for working offline. The device is built for connectivity. The only way to work with apps and data offline is if the app developer builds some sort of mechanism into the app, supported by Chrome OS, says Pichai. Google was vague as to how this would be done, but presumably through Google Gears. Gears is the method used by Google Apps for offline access. Applications have to specifically support it and as of yet, few do.

3. Nope, Android applications won't work on Chrome OS devices. Android apps must be downloaded to the device so they are automatically not compatible with Chrome OS.

4. No options for choosing another browser. Chrome is built into Chrome OS. If you want Firefox, or (gasp!) Internet Explorer, you can't have it. However Google points out that Chrome OS is open source. This means that Mozilla or Microsoft or others can grab the Chrome OS code, develop their own Chrome OS operating system, integrate an alternative browser, and convince their own set of OEM manufacturers to build compatible devices. How likely is that?

5. Uncertainty about plug-ins and other methods of customization. As mentioned above, Google says it will lean heavily on HTML 5 for Chrome OS, which, among other attributes, uses a standardized rich media format. This makes it unnecessary to download proprietary browser plug ins such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. Of course, few Web sites today use HTML 5. Interestingly, Google executives promised that Chrome OS would support Flash when devices shipped but they were evasive when asked about Silverlight, saying only that they would share more info on how the OS would deal with plug-ins at some point in the future. Users won't be able to install binaries, so this doesn't just leave Silverlight out in the dark. All plug-ins, widgets, applets and other popular methods for customization are stuck under in the same vague cloud.

This story, "The 5 best and worst features of Google Chrome OS" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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