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
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  • Hrel - Monday, December 13, 2010 - link

    I thought Microsoft was going to do that Sandboxed browser/apps thing way back when Vista came out. I remember specifically reading that that was one of the features of Vista and why it was so important to make sure your CPU supported virtualization.

    Alas that never came to pass; now we're here in Windows 7 reading leaked info about Windows 8 and it STILL hasn't happened. For shame $soft, for shame.
  • rscoot - Monday, December 13, 2010 - link

    The "I'm not an idiot, so I don't need to run antivirus" opinion is horribly outdated. With as many 0 day exploits and drive by hijackings from legitimate websites you can't just say, "I don't search for horse porn and download warez I'm ok" anymore. Unless you don't use any PDF or Flash software (just for a couple of examples) on your PC, you are going to be at risk. Is your risk as high as the average user's? Of course not, but considering how cheap good antivirus software is (Microsoft Security Essentials is free and low footprint), the only reason not to run AV is to cultivate the smug attitude that you're better than people who choose to protect themselves.
  • TantrumusMaximus - Tuesday, December 14, 2010 - link

    To all of you who commented on the fact Google will house all your personal information... "I SALUTE YOU"

    I love my right, my personal right TO USE A CAPS LOCK key when I want to.

    I love my right on my PC - PERSONAL Computer to do things "I" want to do today without handing my data to big brother to review every last action I make.

    This world is soooooo moving towards the evil futures in many movies where the government makes all your choices for you, knows when you wipe your a$$, knows when you banged your wife, knows all.

    SCREW THIS. I hope it burns.
  • has407 - Saturday, January 1, 2011 - link

    Anand -- Thanks again for the food for thought. I too am impatient to get to the end of the story. But I think the trajectory is ordained; timing is the only question. (Timing, not trajectory, seems to always be the most difficult. I remember pontificating in 1998 that, "with 2MBps ubiquitous connectivity, I could jettison most of the weight, power and data storage I have to lug around with my laptop--which is always out of sync with my other machines--grrr. We should be there by 2004-2005". Hah! ever the techno-optimist. :)

    Will it replace everything else? No. But IMHO that is irrelevant. The relevant question is: Where will the growth be in the coming years? That growth will be--and demonstrably has been for some time--in services and apps that are web-based or anytime/anywhere (which is simply another way of saying "cloud-based"). That's where the developers and development $ will go, because that's what the vast majority of people want and expect (and will increasingly want and expect).

    Yeah, I'll still have my home-based Linux/Win/etc infrastructure, but for most tasks I don't need it, don't (and can't) want to have to lug it around when mobile. That's speaking as an individual... From a corporate perspective there are plenty of options, e.g., "hybrid clouds". But the hard facts are that most organizations--especially smaller organizations--can't provide equivalent SLA's or performance at equivalent cost as public cloud. The differences in economies are off-the-charts compared to what any but the largest organizations can achieve.

    See, e.g., "Above the Clouds: A Berkeley View of Cloud Computing":

    Maybe there will be a swing of the pendulum back towards something like "person clouds", but my crystal ball doesn't go that far out. :)

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