Giz Explains: What The Hell's Google Chrome OS?

Google. Chrome. OS. Just reading that makes my pants tingle. But, uh, what is it exactly?

Here's what Google says: "Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks" and "most of the user experience takes place on the web." That is, it's "Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel" with the web as the platform. It runs on x86 processors (like your standard Core 2 Duo) and ARM processors (like inside every mobile smartphone). Underneath lies security architecture that's completely redesigned to be virus-resistant and easy to update. Okay, that tells us, um, not much.

After all, Google's Android is a mobile OS that runs on top of a Linux kernel. But Chrome OS is different! Android is designed to work on phones and set-top boxes and other random gadgets. Chrome OS is "designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems" for "people who spend most of their time on the web." Hey wait, they both run on netbooks? Hmm!

Since the official blog post is all Google has said about Chrome OS and it doesn't say much, let's do something I learned in college, turning tiny paragraphs into pages of "deep reading."

It seems like there are two possibilities for what Chrome OS is, on a general level. The more mundane, and frankly uninspired, possibility is that it's essentially a Linux distro with a custom user interface running the Chrome browser. As someone quipped on Twitter (sorry I don't remember who), if you uninstall everything but Firefox 3.5 on Ubuntu, would that be the Firefox OS? What's the difference between Chrome OS and a version of Chrome with Google Gears on Intel's pretty Moblin OS?

The other possibility is more interesting. Look at this closely: "Most of the user experience takes place on the web." The software architecture is simply "Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel." That sounds familiar. A lot like Mike Arrington's CrunchPad, actually, which boots directly into the WebKit browser running on top of Linux.

Meaning? The entire experience of the CrunchPad takes place on the internet, and the web is its "platform" as well, essentially. Chrome is WebKit based as well. (I'm surprised Arrington didn't mention this in his post, actually.) If I had to guess, I'd say Chrome OS is somewhere in between an entirely browser-based OS and a generic Linux distro, though leaning toward the former.

But running a full computer like Chrome OS based entirely on web apps is crazy, right—I mean, what if you're not online? There are two things that show it actually might not be completely retarded.

You can already use Gmail offline. I think that will be really indicative of other app experiences in a totally web-oriented Chrome OS with Google Gears. The same goes for Google Docs in offline mode, an option some people have been using for over a year. It's no coincidence that Google pulled "Beta" off of its web apps the day it announced Chrome OS.

Another reason it might work is Palm's WebOS on the Pre, where most of the apps, like Pandora, are written simply using web languages (it, too, is running WebKit on top of Linux kernel). As Harry McCracken notes, it seems like a prime opportunity for Google's long rumoured GDrive online storage to finally rear its head, picking up on the line "people want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files." That could make Chrome OS wildly more compelling. And don't get me started on all the app-like possibilities from HTML5 by the time Chrome OS launches in the second half of 2010.

Actually, the more minimal it is, the more I think Chrome OS could be better, in some ways, than Android. Google half-assed a lot of Android at launch (UI inconsistencies, missing video player). If Chrome OS really is just a glorified browser, Google can afford to be that lethargic—all they have to do is maintain the browser, and everyone else will take care of the web apps. Which developers will code, because they'll run on any OS with a browser—Windows, OS X, whatever—and because the web as a platform is the way things are going. Even Microsoft knows this, deep down, as their Gazelle browser project shows.

How will you sync an iPod, manage printers and network drives, or yank photos and videos from your camera? We don't know. Some things may be impossible. Will there be an uproar, like there was with iPhone 1.0, about the limitations of webapps? Surely someone will bitch.

But I can almost see a day where phones run Chrome OS, too, when wireless internet is truly ubiquitous. It seems obvious, now, that this is Google's long-haul play—not Android, even. Either way, Microsoft doesn't have to be scared today. But they might be in about a year.