How To: Bake Your Own Chrome OS, Right Now

Nobody knows exactly what Google's forthcoming Chrome OS will look or act like, but we've got a pretty good idea of what they're going for. Here's how to live out Google's online-only OS vision, right now.

Before we dive in, it's worth talking about exactly what we're going for here. What "theory of Chrome" are we planning to adhere to? Or perhaps more to the point, what the hell is Chrome? From Google:

"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.

From our own Matt Buchanan:

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.

In other words, Chrome, as we understand it and as Google describes it, is a Linux OS that lives on the web, depending almost entirely on Google's suite of services, which are served through a special, Google-designed interface. We have no way of knowing what this mysterious window manager, menu system or desktop environment will look like, so we can't replicate that. However, the web half of Chrome OS is already in place and ready for us to clumsily unify. So let's make our own stripped-down operating system.

Get Yourself Some Linux Before embarking on this goofy software project, we need a launch pad. Specifically, Linux. You could go with almost any distro and accomplish the same effect, but this guide will be focused on a distribution called Xubuntu. Why Xubuntu? Because it strikes a perfect balance between being extremely compatible and easy to install — on both counts, it really is — and since it's essentially just a version of the uber-popular Ubuntu Linux distro with a stripped-down, super-fast desktop environment called XFCE, it's quick and lightweight. Head over to the Xubuntu website and start downloading. (Go with 9.04 the latest stable version.)

There are a few ways to handle this. If you're planning to install Xubuntu on a netbook — Chrome's first and most natural target — you're probably going to need to create a bootable flash drive. Ubuntu provides some fairly fantastic instructions for doing this on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. If you're trying to do this on a regular laptop or desktop, or you have an external optical drive, you're going to want to burn your downloaded ISO to a CD and install from there. Alternatively, you can order a free install disc (plus shipping) from Xubuntu. Lastly, if you're like me and you just want to test this out in a free virtual machine like VirtualBox, all you need to do is boot a new system from your downloaded ISO.

During the installation, you'll be prompted with a number of options. Make sure you check the "Log In Automatically" radio box — it'll make your boot-to-browser experience a little smoother later on.

Once you've finished the installation — this should take no more than a half hour — you'll find yourself with a pretty, fresh, new Xubuntu desktop. It's really nice! But now it's time to start replacing it.

Choose Your Browser Obviously, you'll need a browser. This is the centre of the Chrome experience; the window through which you'll access Google's suite of services, and which you may never leave. It needs to have support for all the web's various technologies, be it Google Gear (a plugin that lets Google services store data offline so they can load faster and function offline) or Flash, which makes the internet significantly less boring. Chrome OS will obviously ship with Google's Chrome browser, but the Linux port is a little sickly right now. Gears, for example, doesn't really work and Flash, though technically available, crashes constantly. But if you really want to stay as Googly as possible on this project, you can get Chrome for Linux (Chromium) by adding these lines to the "Sources" list in a program called Synaptic, which manages Linux applications through one, unified interface and is accessible in your System menu.

deb jaunty main deb-src jaunty main

You can find out how to enable Flash here. Pro tip: Don't bother with this.

Counterintuitively, the best way to get the Google experience on Linux is with Firefox. Xubuntu comes with Firefox, but you're going to need to spruce it up a little. OK, a lot.

Make That Browser Work First, you'll need Flash. Open Synaptic (mentioned above) from your Applications > System menu, and search for an item called "Flashplugin," (it's Flash Player 10) or navigate to the item as shown in the below screenshot.

Click "Apply" and let the installer run its course. Firefox should now support Flash-based sites like YouTube.

Now you'll need Google Gears. This is a simple Firefox extension which you can download here. This'll help make living online feel a little less like, you know, living online — think offline archived email. Most of Google services can use Gears, so you'll want to go through each site's settings page to enable as many "Gears" or "Offline Access" options as possible. Docs and Mail are where you'll see the biggest differences; Gears turns them from web services into fully-fledged offline apps, transparently. Pretty amazing stuff.

Next, you'll need the Google Toolbar. This, in absence of whatever interface voodoo Google is sitting on, will serve as a sort of constant dashboard for Google services in the meantime. Along with providing shortcuts and notifiers for services like Gmail and Google Calendar, it's got a few little tricks that'll make your browser feel more like a proper OS. For example, in the Google Toolbar preferences, you can check options that enable both automatic Gmail-ing or Mailto: links, and automatic opening of many document formats in Google Docs. You'll want to enable these since we're trying to create the illusion that the rest of the OS doesn't exist, which an errant OpenOffice window or email client could shatter, God forbid.

Lastly, grab yourself a copy of an extension called Speed Dial, which will give you a grid-based homepage of favourites which you can populate with all the core Google Services you're going to need: Gmail, Reader, Google Docs, Google News, etc. It'll be the first thing you see when you open your browser, and eventually, your OS. Set the initial configuration as I have on the left.

And if you're really into this idea for some reason, you can download a Firefox skin that looks like Google Chrome here.

Getting Rid of Everything Else Now that you've got everything you need to live wholly within Google's ecosystem a la Chrome OS, you need to remove everything else — that means excess browser clutter, system menus, and pretty much anything else that stands between you and your Google suite.

The first step will be to strip out your Firefox interface, which is probably looking a bit bloated by now. I've posted my small-screened solution below, which you can replicate by dragging and dropping icons however you please in Firefox's View > Toolbars > Customise menu. The above configuration lets you totally remove the Bookmarks and Navigation bars, which saves a good deal of space. Feel free to play with this for a while — you might find that you don't need one input box or the other, or that you can get away with much less of an interface than I have.

After grinding down Firefox's interface to an acceptable size, you'll need to go to work on your desktop. Before you can kill all the menu bars and shortcuts you don't need, make sure Firefox automatically loads at startup, so you're basically booting into the browser. You can do this by navigating to Applications > Settings > Session and Startup, and adding a new startup item with the values seen below. (The last one is the only one you can't change &mdash ;it's the one that launches Firefox).

Now it's time to murder everything else. Right-click on either the top or bottom system panels (the Start Menu-like things on the top and bottom of your desktop) and click "Customise Panel." From here, you can remove the top panel and set the bottom panel to "autohide." Once you're done, restart. Upon boot-up, this is about all you should see:

Welcome to Chrome! Kind of!

See What You Think As I said before, what you've just slapped together here is not Chrome. Google's final product will probably look nothing like this, superficially. But this little web-savvy Frankenstein OS does, I think, capture something of Google's long-term vision in which everything we store, use and experience on our computer is based online — preferably on their servers — and native applications are nothing more than a small, necessary evil. This experiment is less about guessing the specifics of Chrome OSes interface, under-the-hood workings or usage model (three things which I'm fairly sure this fails at) than it is about deciding whether or not the the idea of Chrome OS suits you and how you use your computer. That, at least, you can get a taste of. So how do you like it?

So that's about it! Please add your experiences in the comments and good luck with your OS impersonation.

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