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Cloudburst : Chrome OS

Google’s Chrome OS is not even on the horizon, but the hype has reached an almost rabid frenzy. Here, we separate the facts from the faff

What is Chrome OS?

Chrome OS is Google’s attempt to bring its minimalistic sensibilities to the Operating System. Operating Systems are designed to run on a wide range of hardware, support a large number of devices, and run on constantly changing configurations. This means that the code used for the Operating System generally has a ton of checks to utilize each and every piece of hardware to an optimum level.

Chrome is probably one of the few Operating Systems where everything is stripped down to the bare essentials. Designed for a narrow range of hardware, this compromise is in favor of performance. Chrome is designed for the particular niche of netbook users who spend most of their time in the clouds. One of the primary guiding philosophies of Chrome is that you are on the internet when you turn your computer on. This explains the almost startling sub 7 second boot time (It’s true, we checked), and the fact that your Google username is also your account name on your system. There is almost nothing on the operating system apart from the Chrome browser.

Chrome OS is not a competitor to other companies that make Operating System for the netbook segment. Chrome OS is just one of the many exciting new platforms for Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs). Moblin, a Linux distribution by Intel for its Atom processor, eyeOS, a cloud-based OS to be distributed with IBM machines from this month, and Google’s own Android are just some examples. The web is growing at such a pace that there is enough room for everyone, including the smaller players to get a hold on different aspects of the web. In fact, the way things are going, services by Google, Microsoft and others will very likely be intercompatible with each other. A demo video of Chrome had a Google employee quipping of a “new application for Chrome by Microsoft”, which was an online version of Microsoft’s office suite. In fact, all the competition is better for Google. Even if there is a netbook based cloud OS that gets more popular than Chrome OS, Google still stands to benefit, simply because of its strong hold over the internet. Chrome OS is open source, and the reason Google is investing efforts into it, is that their primary aim is to get people online. As long as people are online, they will probably be using a Google service, which is the reason for a lot of generosity on Google’s side, including free Wi-Fi access to a lot of American airports. Google is dramatically not venturing into some other areas of the web; an example would be back-end platforms for cloud applications, such as Microsoft’s Azure operating system.

At this stage, Chrome OS is the browser Chrome installed on a skeletal Ubuntu system, with a few bells and whistles. This is all that Chrome looks like it will ever be, and Chrome is barely an operating system in the traditional sense. For the break-in period, Chrome OS will very likely be bundled with a “normal” OS, either another Linux flavor, or with a Windows installation, as is done with Android netbooks now. Chrome OS is still very much in the development phase, with code being put in regularly. The source code is available for anyone to download and use. While Chrome OS is not the first cloud operating system, it is the most widely publicized, and a hands-on reveals that there are many things that users will end up doing differently.

Working on Chrome

Once you login, you get a start menu which is basically an array of different web sites. Conventional web services are treated as applications in Chrome. Gmail is an application at par with Google Docs, a radio streaming service and a flash chess game on a web site. Basically every tab you open on a web browser is no longer considered as a “page” within Chrome OS, and instead is a “window”. There is no desktop to speak of, as everything is within the Chrome browser window. The equivalent device for shortcuts or icons is compressed tabs that are always on irrespective of what you are doing. Some applications like the Lala streaming radio and GChat are given a unique treatment as “panels” that can be minimized when needed. These are always hovering along the bottom of the screen, to be called when needed. This new way of working may seem like it gives you no control, or freedom with your device, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Chrome OS equivalent to the Start Menu, which is just a web page with glorified hyperlinks

You cannot install your own applications on Chrome as yet, as the root folders remain locked. A Linux OS with the Sudoers account disabled is about as secure as current technology is going to get, so no matter what happens, the operating system simply cannot get messed up. This means that the OS remains as fast and responsive as it was, even over prolonged use, as the underlying system is not changing at all. The flip side is that you will have to depend on the web for providing with all the applications that you need. There are some pretty neat web 2.0 applications out there, for everything from photo-editing to audio transcoding, but these are not as fast or as convenient as the desktop alternatives.

As soon as you plug in an external storage device, Chrome OS treats the folder structure as just another web page. You can click through the directories, and open up any fi le as long as there is something on the web that can read the fi le. As of now, this is not really a lot; the most exotic format that Chrome OS can handle is an MP3 fi le, which it opens in a player. Some of the more obscure or even mundane items do need you to work backwards though. An .xml document will open in the browser itself, for example, but not with an editor web application. Chrome OS tries to make the concept of “downloading” old-fashioned, but does not really succeed at it.

Multimedia is a problem as of now, but between YouTube, Vimeo, Last. fm, Grooveshark, and the tons of other streaming options out there, this should not be much of an issue, by the time Chrome OS actually comes into circulation. Serious gaming is outright impossible, unless a dedicated hacker comes up with some elaborate mechanism (we are sure to see this), but the web is full of flash games for the casual gamer. Keep in mind the usage scenarios, and the kind of devices that Chrome OS is likely to show up on, and these are not really major disadvantages.

That said, there is not much to get excited about, unless you are already drooling over the Chrome browser, which would only be possible in a parallel universe without Firefox. The unbelievable start-up time is the single most impressive thing about Chrome OS. The browser as an OS model is great, but needs a lot more to offset the advantages of a traditional operating system – the ability to write out a document offline, for example.

Life in the Clouds

Chrome OS is just a part of a larger trend. While a Cloud OS may be a little too premature for the entire planet, the general direction that Chrome OS is working towards is more or less the future. The strict hold over formats and standards that companies enjoyed so far belongs to an age that is passing by the day. Data intercompatibility and portability will be important for a lot of reasons, and we are likely to see stable, long lasting ways in which to create, store and share data. Open APIs that everyone can use are a part of this, which ensures that applications to use data and content can be designed by independent sources. Facebook and Twitter are shining examples of this trend at the moment. The way things are going, it would be relatively simple to drag and drop a photo from a mail attachment into your Facebook profile. While an OS based entirely on the cloud may not be an answer, a more hybridized approach, will not only work, but is already here to some extent. Adobe’s Kuler for example, is a Web 2.0 swatch application that works with Adobe’s Creative Suite 4 installed on the desktop. The lines between what are a web application and what is a desktop application has begun to blur.

The biggest roadblock to this transformation is the internet itself. The World Wide Web sits on a network of wires almost three decades old now. These wires use hideously outdated protocols, and it is here, the back end of the web, that needs a major upgrade. The web was meant to be an academic endeavor, an agent for the sharing of information. It has grown to be much more, with the invasion of e-commerce, social networking, and now full-fledged operating systems. The cloud right now really is wisps of data without any real support; the internet needs to be much more secure before users can move completely into the cloud.