The secret origins of Google's Chrome OS

The secret origins of Google's Chrome OS

Summary: Many people know that Chrome OS is based on Linux. But where did Google's operating system actually come from -- and what is it made of today? Here's its story.


Google's Chrome OS, thanks to the growing popularity of Chromebooks, is being used by more and more people. Many people know that Chrome OS has a Linux foundation. But how Chrome OS developed from Linux, and exactly what is in Chrome OS today, has been something of a mystery -- until now.

Chrome OS is quite pretty, but where did Google's Linux desktop did come from? Here is its story.

The actual origin of Chrome OS, even now, is unclear. Jeff Nelson, a former Google engineer, claimed that he created a "a new operating system" that "was originally code-named 'Google OS' and since 2009 has been released to the public under the product names, Google Chrome OS, Chromebook, and Chromebox." For proof, Nelson points to his patent, granted later, for network-based operating system across devices.

Nelson added that this "bare-bones Linux distribution," created in 2006, "was initially rejected by Google management" because you couldn't "use it on an airplane." Its interface was also the Firefox Web browser instead of the yet-to-be-invented Chrome Web browser.

In Nelson's take, the Chromebook was not intended to be another device for Web browsing, but a fully functional device for code development for a Google engineer. It was also not designed to be a Web-app-oriented operating system but "a super-fast operating system" that resided entirely in RAM.

In a Google+ posting, Antoine Labour, a Google software engineer, and as "one of the 3 original engineers on the project "and now "the most senior engineer currently working on the project," disagreed with Nelson's Chrome OS history. He doesn't see a connection between Nelson's project and today's Chrome OS.

Labour wrote:

"I have never heard of this guy. He has certainly not given any input on the project, to the extent of my knowledge. For that matter, the Chrome OS project itself, the one that ended up growing and actually [leading to] shipped products, didn't exist in 2006 when he claims he invented it. Reading his blog post, it sounds to me that what he's really claiming [is] he put together bits and pieces of a Linux distribution based on the concept of running off of a ram disk. This has pretty much nothing to do with Chrome OS; I don't see in what way his project could have morphed into what Chrome OS is today."

In a latter note in the same thread, Peter Kasting, a Google Chrome user interface developer, said that "Chrome OS was never internally called 'Google OS' … and I quite literally watched that project be conceived and staffed from a starting ground of zero; whatever project you got staffed didn't morph into it."

Nelson replied:

"In 2007, I had meetings with Jeff Huber (VP of Google's consumer products group), Larry Page (now CEO), several other directors and managers, and even presented a techtalk - all of these meetings on Chrome OS project. By the end of 2007, I was working with a product manager, and together we were able to convince management to launch the Chrome OS project and assign head count to the project by the end of 2007. In August 2007, my product manager and I even met with an external hardware vendor to have exploratory talks regarding their interest in distribution a Chrome OS laptop."

This discussion ended with everyone quietly agreeing to disagree without changing their positions. While I have no doubt that Nelson did create an operating system, sources at Google tell me that Nelson's operating system had no connection with Google's Chrome OS. Specifically, one person close to the matter said, "While Jeff Nelson may have worked on a Linux distribution based on Firefox, he was not involved with the Chrome OS project at any point of time nor was Chrome OS inspired by his work."

So if Nelson's project wasn't Chrome OS's father, where did it come from? Originally, it seems to have started with Ubuntu Linux. Chrome OS was released in November 2009 and the news quickly came out that Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, had helped build Chrome OS.

In a Canonical blog posting, Chris Kenyon, then Canonical's VP of OEM Services, wrote, "Canonical is contributing engineering to Google under contract. In our discussions, Sundar Pichai [Google's senior vice president of Chrome] and Linus Upson [Google's VP of engineering for Chrome] made it clear that they want, wherever feasible, to build on existing components and tools from the open-source community without unnecessary re-invention."

So, Chrome OS today is based on Ubuntu? Well, no... it's not. The first builds of Chrome OS had Ubuntu as its foundation, but it's changed over the years. In February 2010, Chrome OS started switching its foundation Linux distribution from Ubuntu to the older, and more obscure, Gentoo Linux.

This was done, as recorded in a Chromium OS developer e-mail list discussion, because  "the need to support board specific builds and improve our tools has become more urgent. In order to get there more quickly we’ve been investigating several different build tools. We found that the Portage build tools suit our needs well and we will be transitioning 100% within the next week."

Portage is Gentoo's package management system. It's most noteworthy because, instead of using prepared program packages, such as those used in Red Hat's RPM or Debian's DEB, for installing software, it compiles programs directly from source code.

That's not the end of the story though. While Gentoo's Portage is still used for package management in Chrome OS, sources say that today's Chrome OS "kernel is a regular upstream kernel plus our own changes. We don't pick up anything from Gentoo in that area." So, today's Chrome OS is based on Google's own take on the vanilla Linux kernel while Portage is still used for software package management.

No matter how exactly Chrome OS got its start, today it's becoming a popular Linux distribution. While it's most often found pre-installed on Chromebooks, Chrome OS can also be installed on PCs.

Give it a try. No matter its origins, you might find you like this lightweight, cloud-based Linux desktop.

Topics: Linux, Browser, Google, Networking, Open Source, Software, Software Development, Ubuntu

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  • The secret origins of Google's Chrome OS

    There is no secret, all Google tech is stolen and they call it open source.
    • Owlll1net like I said below and it's directed directly at users like you

      I'm sorry to say but I think this great story will be over most Windows users heads.
      Over and Out
      • Over their heads...?

        The nice thing here is that Chrome OS looks like a knock-off of Windows 8 Desktop... I am sure all Windows users will get it just fine... Chrome Pixel = limited use and very expensive.
        • Who even calls ChromeOS OS?

          The product is a flop. Even a cheaper Ubuntu netbook is capable of running far more APPs than this joker.
          • Flop?

            That must be why it's the best selling laptop on Amazon.
          • Data source please

            Mind sharing an independant data source for that little tidbit, it's the best selling laptop on Amazon? I'd like to see it.
          • Amazon Best Selling Laptops

          • ...

            They do not sell Chrome laptops..They sell chromebooks which are more in the line of a netbook or ultrabook but nothing like a laptop. All are different.
          • That...

            Or, the fact that it is the absolute CHEAPEST laptop at $249.00. Don't let that fact get in the way of your story, bro.
          • Call it "son of network computer"

            Various vendors have been trying to replace personal computers with what amount to smart terminals for a generation. ChromeOS is merely the latest attempt.
            John L. Ries
          • Now, now.

            Give it time. It will get better.
            Richard Estes
          • True, BUT

            It is not getting better as fast or faster than other products so it's relative 'goodness' is actually going backwards with time.

            yes, everything else is also getting better, but faster.
          • Android was a "flop" too.

            Chrome OS's future seems to be brighter now -- thanks to the complete failure of the RT Swiss Cheese Malware Magnet Tiles OS.
          • Response from Jeff Nelson

            I read your recent article, "The secret origins of Google's Chrome OS" with interest. However, I'd like to point out several inaccuracies.

            First, much of the article is based on quotes from one source, Peter Kasting. Mr. Kasting clearly has very strong opinions. He also stated, "It would be nice if some Chrome OS folks more knowledgeable than I could shed light on this, because I truly don't know." If you are going to repeatedly quote a source who stated upfront that he "truly doesn't know", you should at least mention that at some point in the article. As for Mr. Kasting's opinions, Google had approximately 30,000 employees in 2007, so it doesn't hurt my feelings that Mr. Kasting doesn't remember me.

            Your article goes on to look for other origins of Chrome OS, discussing the Ubuntu and Gentoo work later in 2009 and later. Certainly, a great deal of solid engineering has gone into Chrome OS over the years, but none of that goes to the origins.

            Your article is notably missing one key point, a genuine challenge to my invention. It doesn't ask or answer key questions. Who else may have came up with the original design of Chrome OS? Is anyone else making such a claim? Did Google file any other patents on Chrome OS in 2009? Is there any equally well documented work, so-called prior art, that precedes my work in 2007?

            I had the opportunity to work with many great people on many great projects at Google. However, I am confident that I was the first one, and the only one, experimenting with lightweight browser-based operating systems in 2006 and 2007, investigating features such as small footprint, secure boot, fast boot, optimized concurrent initialization, utilizing only a small SSD for storage, and implementing the entire desktop with browser components. All of those innovations remain in Chrome OS, even today.

            I did leave Google in January 2008. 14 months later in 2009, I was pleased when Google filed one of my patents and publicly demoed an identical lightweight browser-based operating system. Google even paid me a bonus for Chrome OS in 2009, despite the fact I was no longer an employee.

            As an engineer, I very much enjoy the creation process, and its great to see a project go as far as Chrome OS has gone.

            - Jeff Nelson

            Permission to forward and reprint is given.
          • Yawn...

            So what? +1 cookie? You're looking like the Paul Allen of Google, at this point.
        • You've got it twisted...

          Windows 8 desktip looks like a knock-off of Chrome OS, not the other way around.
          • You've got it twisted...

            You're an idiot and there's no cure for you.

        • Even though ChromeOS predates Windows 8?

          Does Google own a time machine?
          John L. Ries
          • Time Machine

            They must have borrowed it from Apple.
        • ....

          The issue their is no windows users like windows 8 and by the numbers most dont even want it so if chrome looked like windows 8 then its a dead os too.