Microsoft’s Inaction

Fail to adapt and you’ll usually leave a lane open for a competitor to come in and innovate. Although Microsoft dominates the netbook market, I don’t know a single person who would call using a netbook running Windows 7 a pleasant experience. There’s a ton of disk swapping, applications can take forever to launch and although you can do a lot with a netbook, you typically don’t want to. Microsoft needed to provide a lightweight OS optimized for the netbook experience a couple of years ago. It didn’t. So Google is.

The selling point behind a netbook is that it’s small, cheap and fast enough for browsing the web. The problem is a netbook isn’t fast enough for running the OS that you need to run in order to get access to the web.

Microsoft refused to revamp the OS, so Google decided to put forth an OS based around a web browser.

It’s called the Chrome OS and it’s built off of Intel’s Moblin distribution of Linux. and it's built off of Google's own Linux distribution (ed: sorry for the mixup, Google tells us our earlier Moblin information was incorrect). There’s no conventional desktop, you turn on your Chrome notebook and meet a login window followed by an instance of the Chrome web browser.

Google first announced it almost a year ago, but yesterday it fleshed out additional details about the Chrome OS and the first platform to use it.

Learning from Our Mistakes

There are two things that plague the PC user experience: security and ease of use. If you’re a software vendor, there's a third one too - piracy. When building this new category of lightweight OSes and platforms, most vendors want to be the next Microsoft while avoiding making the same mistakes.

It turns out that you can solve a lot of these problems the same way: by closing off the platform.

Chrome OS is a lot like a modern smartphone OS. The only way you can get applications onto the device is through Google’s Chrome web store, and the only way to get applications into the web store store is to have them approved by Google. Right away that means viruses, malware and things that would hamper the user experience are out. The same approach is taken by Google with Android as well as Apple with iOS.

Google further improves security by sandboxing virtually all aspects of the Chrome user experience. Individual apps don’t have access to one another and everything running on a Chrome OS system is version checked against basic code stored in read only memory to make sure unapproved code isn’t running. If it is, the OS can warn the user and automatically restore itself to a known-good state.

All user files are encrypted on disk and decrypted upon use using your login username and password as a key. As long as no one has access to your password, they can’t access anything you’ve stored on the system.

All OS and app updates are handled automatically by Chrome OS. Updates are installed as they’re available similar to how the Chrome browser works on your PC or Mac today. By default you never have to interact with an update dialog box, updates just happen automatically. Unfortunately as we’ve seen with the Chrome browser, this can result in unexpected instability if Google pushes out an update that wasn’t well tested. But from a security standpoint, having a constantly updated OS and apps ensures that security will never be compromised by a user failing to install the latest updates or patches - a definite problem that faces PC users today and one Google hopes to avoid on systems running Chrome OS.

Although this all sounds very Apple like, Google is committed to offering a free-for-all mode at least on its Chrome development platform. The first Chrome notebook that Google is providing as a part of its pilot program features a physical switch underneath the battery that allows developers or enterprising users to turn off all restrictions and run any code you want on the system. Presumably this includes installing your own OS on the hardware or whatever software you’d like. Assuming this feature makes it to retail Chrome notebooks, you shouldn’t have to worry about jailbreaking your system.

The New World Connectivity Brilliance: Free Cellular Data with Every Chrome Notebook


View All Comments

  • kevith - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    Is it just me, or are the prices of data insanely expensive? 50 dollars pr month for 5 GB?!!

    In my country WLAN with a 4Mb/s usb 3G-modem and 10 GB/month is 160 DKR, which is around 30 USD. My daughter has it, and she has to be careful of what she's doing, because after 10 GB they will not charge extra, but simply lower the speed to 64 Kb/s...

    So 100 MB for free is almost a joke.

    And that's why I'm very sceptic to all cloudbased computing anyway, or Google OS and its eventual future competitors: We'l be even more tied up to these companies.

    (I've just gone totally Linux, can recommend it warmly, it's not that hard anymore, they too have developed.)
  • Mumrik - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    "Every player in this space wants to be what Microsoft was during the PC era"

    Haha, I think claimed that era has passed might be jumping the gun a bit :-D
  • rs2 - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    A smartphone is not a computer. A tablet might be, but not if it's running the same OS as an iPhone. Similarly, Android, iOS, webOS, BlackBerry OS, Symbian, and MeeGo are not "personal computer" operating systems. Your definition of "personal computer" is so broad that my TI-89 calculator is feeling snubbed for being left out of your article.

    Ubiquitous computing doesn't mean that all of a sudden everything that has a web browser in it is a personal computer. There also needs to be parity in terms of capabilities, and today there is definitely not. I wouldn't feel comfortable trying to compose a document or PowerPoint presentation on a smartphone, I wouldn't want to use anything short of a laptop or better for software development and coding, and I just plain can't play most games on anything short of a laptop or desktop either.

    Until such discrepancies in functionality are well and truly dealt with, a smartphone is not a tablet, and a tablet is not a personal computer.
  • name99 - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    The comments here are very short-sighted.
    The INTERESTING point here is the future of files.

    Google has gone down the same road as Apple here, trying to pretend that files do not exist, and providing pretty much zero concessions to their existence in the UI. Both, for example, provide extremely limited ways to share files between silos --- eg you can have multiple PDF readers on your iPad, but you can't read a file that is in one of their silos using one of the other PDF readers.

    Presumably Google's theoretical grand strategy here is the claim that you don't need files because whatever would be a file (the canonical example being, eg, a Google Docs spreadsheet) will instead be a whatever-you-call-it living in the cloud.
    Apple, in contrast appears to have not even this level of grand strategy to their thinking --- they are winging it month by month, and it will be very interesting to see what iPad2 + iOS5 bring in this regard in a few months.

    It's not at all clear that this desperate attempt to pretend that files don't exist is a good idea or something users have been crying out for. Users don't want the HASSLE of managing files, I agree, but I think we can do better than both these two options. Google's option, in particular, strikes me as having the potential for all sorts of future legal fun

    (a) Anti-trust --- if all your docs are locked up in Google Docs, they would appear to be a whole lot more securely locked up than anything MS ever achieved. How exactly does a competing spreadsheet/word processor/whatever get into such a market?

    (b) Interaction with other individuals --- If I want others to see work I've done on a file, the current paradigms are well understood. I email the file, or copy it to a public folder on a file server, or transfer it using a flash drive. Sharing a google docs type document with just one other person (as opposed to making it publicly viewable) requires a whole new set of paradigms, and while one solution is to send an email URL to the document, there are actually many situations where you what you want to send other people is exactly a static version of what the document looked like then, NOT a live version that reflects every change I (and others) will subsequently make.
    I suspect to see much fun and amusement over the next few years as doctors, lawyers, politicians et al discover various ways that Google Docs they try to share (and subsequently modify) leak those new changes to the rest of the world.

    (c) Sharing with other programs. I don't want to go all luddite here and go on about the perfection of the UNIX command-line and the way one can flow data through pipelines from one command to another, but I suspect that almost everyone is going to find in time some particular cross-application way of working they utilize, but which others don't know about or care about, so which is not supported in the various (limited and hardwired by the OS manufacturer) ways of sharing that are provided.

    All of which makes me think that PCs are not going to go away. It makes sense to keep tablets and phones as simple as possible because the very point of these devices is their form factor. But it ALSO makes sense to retain PCs, with their rich keyboard input (not just typing but modifier keys, function keys etc), and rich UI (menus allow you to create large and powerful programs like Photoshop, or Mathematica, or Dev Studio --- no menus and no easy way of finding how to do things means much simpler programs).
    Apple, I think understand this. AND, I think, understand the value of having cloud services available for phones, pads and PCs, they just can't admit this until they have their own cloud infrastructure ready for the public.
    Google, I'm not so sure. Google has misfired with respect to UI so often that I'm not at all convinced they understand the needs and desires of most users. So it seems to me that here Google are solving what they think is a problem [and it is a problem], how can we provide a safer, easier, less hassle computing experience, but they AREN'T thinking of the flip side that Apple has more covered, namely what do our users do when they need more power? I suspect Google is being more condescending that Apple here, in that they are assuming most users just don't need "real computers", whereas Apple's strategy is more "use your phone for phone things, use your pad for pad things, and use your mac for everything else".
  • chewietobbacca - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    Is great for my mom, who doesn't use her computer for much more than online browsing and work things. But that's also the other problem - some work things won't work without Windows, and I don't see apps reaching what Excel can do for her (she's in accounting)

    Right now though, I'm just praying Fusion/Bobcat really are all they're hyped up to be, to take us away from this crap Atom has given us
  • maxusa - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    Lately Anand made several rather bold conclusions based on wishful thinking and hearsay. Come on, dude, pull your head out of the gutter, you, CEO and founder of one of the most popular technology review publications online.

    HINT: If you want to target 90% of personal computers 15 years ago and today, you still develop code against one platform only. Based on multiple sources, Microsoft commands 88-91% of the personal computer market share as of November 2010.

    Or, perhaps, Anand is just testing his readership for how much baloney it can swallow?
  • spiral529 - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    I think the Citrix Receiver implementation is one of the most exciting aspects of Chrome. Instant access to any enterprise application, including the MS Office suite, could really make it practical for enterprise users.

    There is a nice demo of Receiver for Chrome from Tuesday's event. You can view the video at the following URL (Citrix coverage starts around 21:30):
  • Conficio - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    Here is my list of things making this a No Go:
    * Configurable alternatives to the Google App Store
    * Basic upgradability, more RAM
    * Installable VPN, for Open Wifi access. I want to get to the web under my security control. Corporate anybody, enterprise?
    * Auto update ? NO, NO, NO! Can you hear me now? This is supposed ot be a "PC" as in personal computer and that is the one thing I won't give up on personal freedom. I want to be in charge as to when I take the risk that my system feezes or stops to function. Not in the midst of a meeting or vacation for that matter. Auto anything must be optional!
    * An array of server type apps for my desktops/home servers that make my data there accessible on demand remotely. Why? I can't control that my employer uses non cloud apps, but hopefully I can access those via such server programs I can install.
  • VooDooAddict - Saturday, December 11, 2010 - link

    What about dropping this OS on existing Netbooks?

    It would open up more potential buyers to the app store and put some of that hardware to use that otherwise sits there unused.
  • 529th - Sunday, December 12, 2010 - link

    This is like a kids OS in terms of being innocent of the other potentials of the internet. Its a good idea but this was the first thing I thought of after reading the app store section. LOL Reply

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