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Winner: Google Chrome, the Conqueror

Google's new online operating system could be the Windows killer

9 min read
Illustration of Google’s Chrome display.
Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

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?

The same basic pain points that users hate about bad browsers—sluggishness, complexity, malware, and the constant crashing—have also been the most common complaints about operating systems. That’s how the Chrome operating system grew out of the Chrome browser, says Upson.

The rationale for the Chrome browser was that the vast majority of users don’t need duplicate commands or such dubious features as the Home button—that house-shaped icon that takes you back to the first page that loads each time the browser is opened anew. Really, how many computer users even know what that button means? Research has shown that button to be worse than useless—inexperienced users often end up having their home pages set for them by enterprising Web sites, their browsers doomed to perpetually redirect them to So Google built a basic, no-frills browser chassis and let third-party developers build optional extensions for the people who need to pimp their browsers with bells and whistles.

Naturally, critics complain that the Chrome browser is too plain, while conceding that it runs much faster than other browsers and takes up less memory. That’s a particular plus for Windows users, whose other applications grind to a halt when an application like Firefox or Internet Explorer 6 hogs memory.

Like the browser, Chrome OS will rely on HTML 5, the latest incarnation of the predominant language used to structure Web pages. HTML 5 will make Chrome OS more powerful, mainly by improving access to rich media. Right now, in order to look at video in older browsers, you need a plug-in—a piece of software that augments your browser’s basic capabilities. Think Quicktime, which lets you watch YouTube videos of skateboarding cats, or Adobe Reader, which lets you look at a PDF document right in your browser window. But HTML 5 displays rich media without the assistance of plug-ins. Chrome not only won’t need them—it might not even support them.

So what does Google get out of all this? After all, apart from the netbooks (which by some estimates will sell for between US $400 and $700), Google is giving the entire Chrome suite away for free. Recall that Google makes its money from the ads that people see during the course of their everyday Web surfing. So if these people surf more, Google profits more. “We noticed that when people can use the Internet faster and more easily, they are able to use the Internet more,” says Chrome OS engineer Upson.” And that means Google makes more money.”

To that end, Google’s main bragging right is “power button to Web” speed, or how fast you can get from having a shut-down computer to reading your e-mail. Google Chrome, the company promises, will do it in 7 seconds. Contrast that with even the best computers, which can take 45 seconds to boot up. Where does that big difference come from? A computer that runs many applications has a lot of chores to do when you hit the on button. Among these are loading the firmware (a kind of software that deals with the most basic operations, which allow a device to function—for example, by making it aware that its various components exist so it can start delegating tasks to them), initializing various drives and ports, and looking for any external devices. Some of these don’t exist anymore, but the legacy firmware will spend time checking for them anyway. Raise your hand if you remember Zip drives.

That eats into the boot-up time before the operating system has even loaded. But even after it does load, you’re still not out of the woods. The next obstacles are the auto-start applications that have been configured to fire themselves up the moment the system starts: virus protection, office reminders, updaters, self-monitors, and so on. These applications grow on your hard drive like ivy. If you don’t prune them mercilessly, within a few years they’ll have clogged up your system’s memory and your once blazingly fast computer will creak like an old rocking chair.

Google trashed most of these processes. By getting rid of all software except the browser, engineers were able to prune a tremendous amount of legacy software. Virus protection? Part of the browser. Calendar reminders? In the cloud; subtract a couple of seconds. Google’s partners will replace the hard disk drives in the new Chrome netbooks with solid-state drives (the kind that are on your mobile phone). That means no moving mechanical parts—subtract a few more seconds. An operating system that’s also a browser means you’ll never have to double-click an application icon again—subtract another second. And so on.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft isn’t too happy about all this. The software giant can’t complain about an unseen OS, which leaves it to talk up Windows 7. A Microsoft spokeswoman told IEEE Spectrum in a canned statement that people have purchased Windows 7 twice as often as they purchased any of Microsoft’s previous operating systems.

Microsoft’s confidence may stem from a misconception that Chrome will be bound to the netbook. However, given the open-source nature of the code, Chrome’s migration into other hardware is just a matter of time. In late November, Google cofounder Sergey Brin intimated that Google Chrome OS will not stay in the netbook ghetto for long. Eventually, he said, the operating system will also be available on notebooks and desktops. “There are no technical limits,” he said.

Fast, secure, free—is that where the Web is headed? If it is, it wouldn’t be the first time. Consider the story of Microsoft’s “free” Hotmail. In 1999, Hotmail offered users 2 MB of free storage, but for most users spam quickly devoured that allotment if they weren’t vigorous about maintaining their pittance of free space. Disingenuously, Microsoft (or MSN) made available a paid upgrade if you couldn’t live on that pittance: Various plans charged users between $19.95 and $59.95 a year to upgrade to between 10 and 100 MB. In 2004, Google blew a hole in that business plan with Web mail that gave away shocking amounts of storage: 1000 MB, a number that kept growing at such a rate that users couldn’t keep up with supply (it now stands at 7384 MB). Lo and behold, in 2004 Microsoft announced that it was upping its free storage offering to 250 megabytes at no charge. Now it’s all free—even Yahoo offers theoretically unlimited free storage.

And yet, even a plan as seemingly bulletproof as “let me give you this great thing for free” has its skeptics. “I think we still have a long way to go before cloud computing becomes something that we can all use on a day-to-day basis,” says Mike Halsey, an IT support engineer and teacher based in Sheffield, England, and the author of the Windows 7 Power Users Guide. “What about playing music or video on the move, or editing photos on one service when they’re stored on another?” Halsey asks.

Halsey’s particular beef is that the cloud is not yet reliable enough to support Google’s Web-only vision. “It’s certainly not ready for the mainstream as things stand,” Halsey concludes. Let’s say you’re in the clouds (you’re stuck on an airplane without Wi-Fi), and yet, ironically, cut off from your access to The Cloud. The thought of a $400 brick sitting in your lap for the entire 6 hours you spend on a flight between New York and Frankfurt might give you pause. A Google spokesperson told IEEE Spectrum that Google has no plans to mitigate the issue by installing off-line applications—a word processor, say, or an e-mail client—as insurance against the times when no Internet connection is available.

So the cloud is still the kink, but the cloud will improve. And so will Google, right along with it. It’s worth pointing out that many companies store sensitive documents in the cloud right now, and some of them use the enterprise version of Google Apps. Here’s the predictable scenario: The programs will evolve with use, as more developers test-drive Chrome’s capabilities and more geeks customize it with every extension you can possibly imagine. In the end, Google’s user base will expand the extensions to areas that not even Google can imagine. People will spend even more time surfing, and out of the corners of their eyes they will see ads from Google, making a rich company even richer. And that means the benevolent deity will continue to make fast and fun toys.

But before you sign your entire life over to Google, you might consider a minor sticking point. “Google has been able to treat users really well because it’s been so profitable,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar, who is an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. He is working on a book called The Googleization of Everything. Google’s benevolence, Vaidhyanathan says, isn’t something we should get too used to. “Henry Ford thought he was saving the world, too,” he says.” It’s really important to be suspicious about any egalitarian claim by any corporation. Corporations are, and should be, in the business of business. Any claims of making the world better should not be important to those of us who use the services and products. In fact, we are Google’s products, because Google actually sells us.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Chrome the Conqueror.”

For all of 2010’s Winners & Losers, visit the special report.

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