A lot of time has passed since this article was originally written (January 2011), so some aspects of Chrome OS have changed…while still others have stayed quite the same. What do you think about the current state of Google’s experimental operating system? Let’s hear it in the comments.
As Chrome OS is a moving target, constantly evolving and changing, there is no guarantee that the information contained herein will still be 100% accurate, or for that matter even relevant, by the time you read this. It’s even possible the Chrome OS project will have crashed and burned before these words make it to paper. Still, as a matter of historical record, I will describe in the following pages my early experience with Chrome OS as both a piece of technology and a new concept in computing.
What is Chrome OS?
Chrome OS is an experiment by Google to see if the average users’ day to day computing needs could be met (or perhaps even exceeded) by pushing all of their applications and personal files into the “Cloud”. By the way, before we get too far into this, let’s clear up one thing from the start; the “Cloud” is just the Internet. So for the rest of this article I am going to dispense with the marketing buzzword and just call it that, if it’s all the same to you.
Anyway, the concept of putting all of our documents and programs on a remote server is certainly nothing new. The mass market is already familiar with using the Internet as an application and data storage platform with immensely popular services like Facebook and Dropbox; and of course the very concept of the local machine being nothing more than a terminal that connects to a network of more powerful machines goes all the way back to the original mainframe computers. In fact, you could even make the argument that putting all of our assets onto server’s out of our control is a step backwards in computing, something that the community once fought hard to break free from.
Issues of freedom and privacy aside (don’t worry, we will be back to that shortly), Google does make a strong case for the Chrome OS concept. The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of average computer users don’t do a whole lot on their machines other than access web-based services like GMail, Facebook, Twitter, etc. If we go along with the claim made in some of the Chrome OS promotional videos, that the average computer user spends 90% of their time in the web browser, it’s logical that a machine which has only a web browser could fulfill the majority of their needs.
The startup tutorial that plays when you first login to the system also makes frequent references to the idea of a “Steamroller Attack”, which is how Google describes the sudden and unavoidable destruction of a Chrome OS device. It goes on to explain that, since everything is stored online, the local machine itself is nothing more than a disposable portal through which you access their services. Therefore, the destruction or otherwise loss of the machine isn’t a problem, since you can return right where you left off with a new unit.
But theory is just that, and without a real world test there is no way to be sure if the Chrome OS concept holds up with actual users. Accordingly, Google announced they would be mailing out test machines loaded with the current build of Chrome OS to lucky applicants.
I would like to think that somebody from Google looked me up and decided that my website and published works were so well written and researched that they simply had to award me one of these new prototype machines, but realistically I am sure it was just the luck of the draw. In any event, I now have in my possession Google’s idea of the future, so let’s take a look at it.
As the hardware itself (known as the CR-48) is a reference device, and almost certainly will never see a commercial release in it’s current form, I won’t dwell too long on it here. But it is worth a mention as it does echo many of the same ideals of Chrome OS itself, and regardless of how close hardware manufacturers decide to follow it’s example, it does say a lot about how Google envisions computers of the future.
If you asked me to picture what a mobilized, 21st century version of a mainframe terminal would be like, the CR-48 would be it. It’s simple, sleek, perfectly suited for it’s task, and at the same time wholly forgettable. It is a disposable computer if there ever was one, completely devoid of bells, whistles, or branding. There is only a single USB port, a VGA connector for an external monitor, and an SD reader. Even the original ASUS Eee 701 netbooks had more connectivity options.
The untrained eye may look at the CR-48 and assume that Google was simply trying to put out the cheapest machine they could for the purposes of the Chrome OS test, but a glance at what’s under the hood tells another story. The CR-48 is powered by Intel’s Atom N455 processor, paired with 2GB of DDR3 RAM and a 16GB SSD. In addition to the expected WiFi, it has an integrated 3G modem with free data service of up to 100MB per month, and Bluetooth 2.1. At the time of this writing, the closest consumer netbook I could find with similar specifications was over $400, and even then, didn’t have as large a screen or 3G.
Chrome OS is an incredibly simple platform from a software standpoint. It is literally just a standard GNU/Linux system that boots directly into the Chrome browser.
Of course, the build of Chrome OS that ships on the CR-48 is very far from completion, and it could be that things will change significantly before the mass market gets their hands on it. But as it stands, I am struck by how absolutely normal the Linux system is. I was expecting something similar to Android, where the system powers a heavily customized and stripped down userland with the Linux kernel. In Chrome OS, the only thing the system is missing to be a standard Linux desktop is a proper window manager and local applications.
There are however some added security features not normally found on desktop Linux. For example, the /home directory and all removable devices are mounted with the “noexec” option, which means it isn’t (normally) possible to execute binaries stored on these volumes. This effectively prevents any executable programs from being run on the machine unless they were included in Chrome OS.
If you are the tinkering type, which if you are reading this you likely are, you will probably want to put Chrome OS into Developer Mode. Developer Mode enables some nice features like “crosh” (Chrome OS’s debug shell), and Linux terminal access. On the CR-48 there is a physical switch under the battery cover that puts the machine into Developer Mode, but the Chrome OS documentation seems to indicate other machines may have different methods to enable this special mode.