This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Winners & Losers VII
Is Google God?
There’s a test for that: omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. Omnipresence? Check. There’s Gmail, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Earth, Google Mars, Google Apps (the word-processing, spread-sheeting service). They’re all everywhere, all the time.
Omniscience? The eponymous search engine is perhaps as close to a complete index of the sum total of human knowledge as has ever existed. (There’s even the PowerMeter application, which can tell when you’ve been naughty or nice with your electricity usage.)
Omnipotence? That’s a tough one. Google could annoy you in myriad ways if it wanted to. It could frustrate your flailing attempts to find out where the hyoglossus muscle is. Gmail could gobble up your feverish love letters; Maps could send you down an endless series of side streets long ago blocked by freeways and housing developments. Off you go to the howling wastelands of Yahoo Search and MapQuest.
But, really, why should Google bother with you when, with its superpowers, it can take on much bigger game? Like, say, Microsoft?
”No more managing, tracking, and backup—my data and applications will be available instantly from any Internet-connected terminal. Thank you, Google.”—Nick Tredennick
”I will admit that Google is a deity, but even they have bad-hair days. They can’t have my data in their cloud. I don’t trust them.”—Robert W. Lucky
Last year saw the introduction of Google’s Chrome browser, a variant of which can live inside Microsoft Internet Explorer. Ouch! Then came another smack with the unveiling of Google Wave, a sort of supercharged e-mail and messaging application that merges those functions and seamlessly adds other niceties—social networking, automatic translation, and other services. And later this year will come the most punishing blow of all: an entirely Web-based operating system, Google Chrome OS, which will live in ultraportable netbooks.
Although you’ll never hear it from Google, the Chrome suite looks an awful lot like a dagger aimed straight at Microsoft’s heart.
Who needs 500-gigabyte hard drives and a 6-megabyte L2 cache when lots of input ports and a fast wireless connection will do? That’s the rhetorical question that has lately prompted the meteoric rise of the netbook, a bare-bones laptop that gets most of its muscle from online services. Google, in Mountain View, Calif., is the first software company to truly capitalize on the promise of these machines: to allow casual users to live entirely in the cloud, without realizing they’re there.
Chrome OS has no built-in applications—no iCal, no Outlook, no TextEdit, no Word. You just turn on your netbook and you’re on the Web, in what we now call the cloud, where all your stuff lives: all your photos on Flickr, a long trail of your daily foibles and frustrations on Twitter, your purchasing history on PayPal, your prolix unpublished novel on LiveJournal, your music collection on Rhapsody, and the stuff that might be a little embarrassing if your coworkers came across it on Facebook. In fact, cloud computing is what makes Google’s strategy possible. ”There’s only a browser,” says Linus Upson, a director of engineering at Google, who is in charge of Chrome OS. ”And all it does is get you onto the Web really, really fast.”
Cloud computing has become an everyday transaction. Those computer users who don’t need to store sensitive documents locally can put everything up in the cloud without missing a beat. Nearly any application you desire—for e-mail, social networking, maps, shopping, even music—no longer needs to be stored on your computer. A significant number of people no longer use their computers for much that isn’t Web-based. So why not make it as easy as possible to open your laptop, press the on button, and be where you want to be?
As an increasing number of applications become virtual—Microsoft is even taking Office 2010 into the cloud—you can use them without using a lick of your own computer’s resources. Experts call the new paradigm ”appliance computing,” likening your netbook to your television: Your TV doesn’t care whether it’s fed an HD or a standard signal as long as the hardware can make sense of it. At last year’s Supercomputing conference, Nvidia showed off precisely that idea: A featherweight netbook with only rudimentary graphics capabilities displayed completely photo-realistic three-dimensional rendered images courtesy of a server 500 miles away. Your Web apps—Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, YouTube—are just small-scale versions of that concept.
But first, some untangling of terms, because Google insists on sowing confusion by naming the OS after the browser. The new technology is called Chrome OS, an operating system that is mostly a Web browser, but it’s not Chrome, which actually is a browser. Confused? You’re not alone. Google punted on the naming conventions, but the company insists that it all makes sense. And it does. But it requires a little bit of explaining.
Chrome OS is Google’s stab at reinventing the operating system. To understand why, you need a little background in what makes an operating system in a regular computer and why it’s in need of an upgrade.
Chrome OS is based on Chrome, a free, open-source Web browser Google introduced in 2008 to compete with Apple’s Safari and Mozilla Firefox. Google is working with equipment manufacturers to create special hardware around the Chrome operating system, based on Linux, which will run on x86 and ARM chips. Chrome OS–compatible netbooks are expected to appear by the fourth quarter of 2010, just in time for the holiday shopping season.
So if the whole operating system runs inside a browser, why can’t any computer use it right now? Well, at press time, there were still some pesky technical challenges that Google engineers had to solve, which is why they released the first open-source version of the code in November. Among the issues: How much storage do you build into a machine that isn’t intended for off-line use? How do you come up with a smarter way to let users print to any printer without worrying about drivers? Can people with no intention of ever having a Google account happily get by using a Chrome netbook?