Why Is Google Bothering With Chrome OS?

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Android runs on tablets, so why is Google pressing on with its plans for Chrome OS? Tom Jowitt has the answers

As Google prepares to unveil the first netbooks running its Chrome operating system, many people are still questioning why Google is bothering with it, considering the massive success it has enjoyed so far with Android.

The name Chrome is best associated with Google’s web browser, which it launched in 2008 to compete with Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. Around the same time, the first commercially available phone to run Google’s Android open source mobile operating system Android went on sale – the HTC Dream.

In 2009, as netbooks became a major force in the industry, Google announced it would make a lightweight operating system for netbooks, based on the Chrome browser, called Chrome OS.

Android storms the market

Since then, Android has gone on to be a massive success, with the US market share for Android hitting 23.5 percent in October, putting it one percentage point behind Apple’s iOS at 24.6 percent.

The Chrome browser has also made inroads, hitting a nine percent share of the browser market. It has also expanded onto tablets – a form factor which has come into its own with the launch of the iPad, and where Android is expected to do well

But Chrome OS meanwhile, has been on the launchpad. It has been released to developers, but the forthcoming Chrome netbook will be the first time users will see it.

If Android is going to do so well on tablets, it is tempting to ask why Google is bothering with Chrome OS.  The simple answer is that Google is looking to repeat the success of Android – with an OS designed for computers, not smartphones.

Google engineers believe that most users nowadays spend the majority of their time online, using a browser. Previous operating systems such as Windows were designed in a offline world, where data needed to be stored and accessed locally.

The Google engineers were frustrated at the long boot up times of conventional operating systems, and they wanted something that would allow them to get online as soon as the machine was switched on.

They also wanted an operating system that didn’t slow down over time, and they wanted something that would allow them to store their data not on the machine, but on the Internet (i.e. cloud computing), so their data could be accessed from any machine, anywhere in the world.

Cloud Approach

So in Chrome OS, when you boot up your machine and log-in, the only window you actually see is the Chrome web browser. No applications are pre-installed, and indeed no applications can be installed. You can only use web-based applications such as Gmail, YouTube etc. To find an application, users just enter a URL in the web address bar.

Google believes this approach is the future, and it has even reportedly banned  Windows from its staff PCs over security concerns with Microsoft offerings.

Google made the source code for Chrome OS open, which will please developers, although it will only work on devices that adhere to certain system requirements. Google is initially targeting netbooks, i.e. those ultra portable laptops that everyone seems to have forgotten in the recent tablet stampede. Chrome OS also only works on Solid State Drives (SSDs) and not the traditional hard disk drives with their spinning magnetic platters.

Google says this allows Chrome OS to be much faster than a normal OS, with a typical boot up to the log-in screen of just 4 seconds after the power button is pressed – compared to the 45 seconds (at least) of other operating systems.

Google also thinks that the lack of apps will make things simple, meaning there is nothing for users to manage. Applications don’t need patching or updates, or even un-installing etc. Also no anti virus suites need to run in the background that hog these lightweight machines’ vital memory since it is based on Linux. And speaking of security, with all your data stored on someone else’s server, it takes the onus off the end user. Any local data that resides on the Chrome OS machine is encrypted, to prevent any naughtiness.

Chrome vs. Android

All this sounds perfectly fine, until you remember the elephant in the room – namely Android. This mobile operating system is now being used on tablet computers, so why not netbooks and even computers? Both were designed to be lightweight operating systems after all.

But that doesn’t mean that Android is best suited to running a desktop computer. From the offset, Android was designed to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks.

Google Chrome OS is different, as it was created for users who spend most of their time on the web, and it was designed to run on computers – either small netbooks to full-size desktop systems.

Google thinks that by offering developers and manufacturers a choice of operating system, it is covering all bases and setting itself up for the best chance of success in the market.

It is essentially mimicking Apple’s and Microsoft’s approach.  Apple has the Mac OS for its computers and its iOS for the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch etc. Likewise Microsoft has the Windows operating system for computers and laptops, but Windows Mobile and now Windows Phone 7 for mobile phones.

The thing that will set Google’s Chrome OS apart from its rivals is the fact that it has been designed with the cloud in mind from the beginning. However, with confidence in the cloud still low, Google will have its work cut out if it hopes to convince corporate buyers that its Chrome OS can offer a credible alternative to Windows or Mac OS.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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