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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

July 8, 2009 at 9:07 PM

Chrome OS: Return of the network computer?

Google is not officially saying much about Chrome OS beyond a Tuesday evening blog post, announcing that the company is indeed developing a computer operating system.

But a very knowledgeable “industry source” answered a few questions about a project that on its surface appears to be a significant challenge to Microsoft, Apple and the PC industry’s status quo.

After getting these additional details, I’m thinking that Google’s “Chrome OS” will be latest iteration of the thin client “network computer” that others in Silicon Valley first proposed back in the mid-1990s.

The concept was to shift most of the actual computing from the local machine to the Web. With servers doing the heavy lifting, people wouldn’t need much more than a keyboard, display and Internet connection.

Oracle and Sun Microsystems — where Google’s chief executive used to work — began pushing this concept as their competition with Microsoft grew and Windows became the dominant platform for software development.

Their vision has been partly realized. Most people have good Internet connections and the Web has become the dominant platform, connecting not just computers but increasingly phones, game consoles, cars and televisions.

Some big companies use thin clients connected to their networks. The consumer equivalent may be netbooks, the low-powered mini computers based on hardware designed for mobile devices.

But the majority of personal computing is still done on full-powered machines that run applications offline as well as online.

One reason is because PCs keep getting more powerful without getting much more expensive. The appeal of a Web-oriented operating system will be limited if it doesn’t make the most of the dramatic gains in processing power, graphics and storage that PCs are expected to see in the next few years.

Google is expecting its operating system to start appearing on netbooks and larger computers by the end of 2010. It’s designed for standard PC hardware that supports more local storage than a thin client, though it will presumably encourage people to use Web services that store files online, such as Gmail and Picasa.

The software hasn’t yet coalesced — it’s a more of a project than a prototype at this point, so don’t expect a lot in the way of demonstrations anytime soon.

I was told Google is “still coding on this.” The software should be running toward the end of 2009, at which point Google will make it open source and shareable.

Google’s operating system will be an extension of its Chrome browser. Apparently everything on a Chrome OS computer will be done through the browser, and applications will not run outside the browser. The browser will be the desktop, and the browser will be Google’s. To use a browser other than Chrome, consumers or computer makers will have to modify the source code.

I’m curious to see if consumers will accept an operating system developed by and connected to a company whoses primary business is targeting ads.

It sounds like Google’s response to such concerns will be that the Chrome OS will offer the same level of privacy as its Chrome browser, and that consumers with privacy concerns can always switch to a different product. Because the software will be open source, developers can also look through the code “for nefarious things.”

Google isn’t the only company boosting the capability of browsers.

Some have speculated that Google timed its announcement to get ahead of Microsoft, which may reveal an advanced, OS-like browser dubbed Gazelle at a conference next week.

In some respects they’re both behind Norway-based Opera Software, which last month released a test version of a radically new browser, called Unite. Unite has a built-in server, so users can host communication sessions and share files and photos directly across the Web, instead of having to go through corporate servers.

In its post announcing the Chrome OS, Google said it would shortly begin sharing details with the open source community. Google’s participating at the Open Source Conference in San Jose, Calif., starting on July 20, but my source said the company doesn’t plan to share more details about Chrome OS until later this year.

Tuesday’s blog post was “just an early announcement to give a heads-up and provide context and overview.”

Google has hired a lot of former Microsoft engineers at its Seattle-area offices, but the Chrome OS development is concentrated in Mountain View, Calif.

Will Chrome OS share components with Android, the mobile device operating system that Google developed with partners such as T-Mobile USA and Sprint?

My source said they both operate on a Linux kernel and their browsers run on the WebKit open-source browser engine, but they are “totally separate initiatives approaching the operating system challenge from two different points of view.”

It’s unclear how many of today’s PC applications will run on the Chrome OS. Google’s solution to that challenge will apparently be to suggest that legacy applications be turned into Web applications:

“As far as legacy software and things like that, if you want the code for this operating system, you just build a Web app, you use HTML and Javascript, and it’s going to work really well,” the source said. “All the user experience takes place in the browser.”

Another question is how PCs running the Chrome OS will operate when they’re offline. For this capability, Google will rely heavily on Gears, a browser technology it released in 2007. Gears stores and runs information from Web applications so they can run offline, then synchronizes the data when a connection is restored.

What about heavy-duty applications, such as editing big media files, that can be a hassle to do online? Google is “still trying to figure out the details of how these things are going to work.”

How can developers get involved? They can write applications for the Chrome OS today. Applications using HTML and Javascript will work on the Chrome OS, just as tehy would on any other browser.

Developers are likely to get their chance to work with Chrome OS code itself later this year. It’s unclear how far development will be at that point; the operating system could be nearly done or still a work in progress.

I’m guessing the code will be released sometime before Oct. 22.

UPDATE: Here’s Google’s Chrome OS blog, which said PC makers participating in the project include Acer, Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Toshiba.

Comments | Topics: chrome os, Google, Microsoft

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