A short introduction to Chrome OS

Google are everywhere these days. The number one search engine, a suite of hugely powerful mail and business applications, shopping, maps... but last year they seemed to move from the Software as a Service model to something rather different, with the release of their browser, and their operating system, Chrome. Richard Cohen explores what it's all about.

We'll start with 'cloud computing', which is actually an appropriately nebulous term... It's been traditional for a long long time, particularly when teaching computer networking, to use a cloud in a diagram to represent "all the stuff which happens on the network between computer A and computer B":

Network Cloud

We don't care how the communication happens between A and B, we just assume they can talk to each other. This usage has been changed a bit, in the past 5 years or so, to add the idea of services which live in 'the cloud' - we don't care where they are, as long as we can communicate with them over the Internet, using standard tools from anywhere. A simple example would be using gmail/hotmail/yahoo for your email, rather than an email system supplied by your employer, school or ISP. Another simple example would be Facebook - you don't know anything about how it works, you don't have any relation with them other than being a user of the service, you can access it from anywhere...

So 'cloud computing' is the idea of taking things which previously ran either on your computer, or at least on your local network, and shoving them out into the cloud. It relies on a combination of 2 or 3 technologies, which are just about available now, but weren't 5 years ago - ubiquitous broadband, standard network protocols, and, to a slightly lesser extent, cheap/ubiquitous computing.

Chrome OS is what falls out of all that, if you're Google. It's an OS designed to run on cheap portable computers (i.e. netbooks) which are always on-line (wifi or 3G) and running a standard platform called a 'web browser'. It assumes that you use Gmail in your web browser, rather than Outlook connected to an Exchange server. It assumes that you use Google Docs rather than Microsoft Office. It assumes that you stream music and even video (TV, etc.) from the web, rather than storing and playing it locally. It assumes that you're using Google talk through your browser, rather than running a local chat program. It assumes that you're doing all of this on a 'secondary' computer.

Google Software as a Service

They're not claiming that you can or should run your life like this yet. What they are saying - correctly, in my opinion - is that if you are willing to trust the 'cloud services', you can move a lot of what you do online without losing very much, and gaining ubiquitous access in return. You've got a big heavy laptop... I've got a little handheld phone... they both access the same online data, to a great extent, and my phone has a longer battery life, built-in 3G, and lacks the potential for spraining my back by carrying it.

As for running Chrome OS to take a look at it, there are a couple of options. You can't run it directly on your Mac, because it only runs on netbooks, and a small specific list at that. What you can do is run it under virtualisation - same same way I, for those rare occasions when I need it - run 'Windows in a window'. VirtualBox is a virtualisation tool, which will let you run Chrome OS in a window on top of your Linux, Windows or Mac OS machine. Alternatively, and much more simply, just load up the Chrome browser - technically, the chromium open-source browser, which is the core of Chrome, since Chrome is still Windows-only. Chrome OS is, in essence, a modified form of the Chrome browser running on streamlined Linux OS, so if you want to know what Chrome OS looks like today, running Chrome (or chromium) will get you a lot of the way there...

Chromium is pretty usable as a browser - I've been using it as my main browser for a few weeks now, with little trouble. Chrome OS, however, is not usable yet. It's expected to be released to hardware manufacturers sometime around the spring, and be on the market latish next year.

About the author

Richard Cohen is a Linux expert and Python developer, living in Hong Kong. A long time authority on handheld devices, he also holds the rare distinction of having worked for both Sun Microsystems and SCO.

Published on in Linux