Update on Chrome OS

Yesterday, Google unveiled a beta version of its Chrome OS, and also demonstrated a preliminary version of a notebook computer running the new OS, dubbed the Cr-48.   According to Google’s specs, the new machine has some interesting features:

  • A 12.1 inch screen, with a full size keyboard
  • Built-in WebCam
  • Built-in dual-band 802.11n WiFi and 3G global cellular data networking
  • 8+ hours of battery life in active use
  • 8+ days of battery life on standby

The device has local flash memory storage, but no hard disk.  It does have USB ports, although their potential uses at this point are somewhat limited (you can’t, for example, download pictures from a digital camera); some of these kinks will, I’m sure, be ironed out by the time production versions are available, slated for mid-2011.  The initial hardware will be manufactured by ASUS and Samsung.

Google is emphasizing that they are aiming to make these devices more secure than the average PC is today.  The Chrome OS machines have a facility called Verified Boot, in which the initial loading of the OS is done from read-only memory; all subsequently loaded modules have their cryptographic signatures checked. If necessary, any suspect modules can be replaced from a secure storage facility.  Updates to the software will be automatic.  User data stored locally is automatically encrypted.

One feature of the new  device that has attracted some comment is the absence of a CAPS LOCK key.  I have thought, at least since I got my first PC, that having a CAPS LOCK key on a computer keyboard was really stupid — in the unlikely event that I want all upper case, it is much easier to just type the text and tell the editor to capitalize it all — but some people seem to be agitated about this.

Google also demonstrated that the device still would be useful, even if no Internet connection were available.

One of the most common arguments against the idea of a browser-centric operating system for netbooks is that the platform’s usefulness could be significantly undermined in the absence of connectivity. This problem can be partly mitigated by offline Web application support, as Google demonstrated by showing how the offline version of Google Docs works on Chrome OS.

The company also said that they have negotiated some attractive cellular access plans with Verizon, and possibly other carriers.

Google also launched the Chrome Apps Store on Tuesday, with several hundred applications, some free, and some costing $2 or so.  (You can look over the Store with another browser, like Firefox, but you have to use Chrome to actually get and install the apps.)

I’ve written  before about Google’s natural (self-) interest in promoting Web use, and I think the Chrome OS project is interesting as an example of that, as well as being technically interesting.   The added cellular connectivity is certainly a plus for folks that travel a lot.   It seems that a key idea is to make a device that is much simpler and easier to maintain than the current notebook PC configuration.   It’s hard to predict how well this concept will fare with consumers.

There are also articles at Ars Technica and Wired about the announcement.

3 Responses to Update on Chrome OS

  1. Patrick Sullivan says:

    For me, 12″ for a laptop screen seems to be the upper bound on what is comfortable to travel with and fit easily into a briefcase. Apple no longer produces a laptop that small. I’ve gone through a couple of obsolete G4 iBooks now because they seem to have been Apple’s last 12″ laptop. The Intel MacBooks all start at 13″ and that size starts to be awkward to carry. Maybe Google figured this out where Apple didn’t, or possibly Apple was trying to steer customers towards iPads.

    • Rich says:

      I tend to agree about the size. I have an Acer laptop (running Linux) with a 15″ screen, which I like very much, but I wouldn’t want to travel with it much farther than the library or the coffee shop.

      Obviously there’s some tradeoff between size and function The “netbook” products were an attempt to provide an acceptable alternative, but it seems no one has hit the sweet spot yet. Maybe putting a good chunk of function “in the cloud” will do it.

  2. […] Technology Review has an interesting article discussing Google’s recent announcements about its Chrome OS, and the prototype computer, the Cr-48, that runs it.   As I’ve […]

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