Google launches Chrome OS, aiming for the enterprise

Google has finally shown off its browser-based operating system, which it says is suited to business use due to its security and other features
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Google has finally shown off Chrome OS, its web-based notebook operating system that is pitched squarely at the enterprise.

The company demonstrated the features in Chrome OS, along with the new Chrome Web Store and future security features of the Chrome browser itself, on Tuesday at a launch event in San Francisco. The operating system, which Google first unveiled a year ago, is not expected to go on general release until mid-2011 at the earliest.

Speaking at the event, Google's product management chief Sundar Pinchai said Chrome OS will offer business users benefits in terms of security, simplicity and total cost of ownership.

Chrome OS image

Google has unveiled the main highlights of its Chrome OS, which it says is suited to business use due to its security and other features. Photo credit: Seth Rosenblatt

"We've had a lot of incoming calls from CIOs [interested in Chrome OS]," Pinchai said. "Countless hours are spent within the enterprise keeping their systems safe and secure. [Businesses want] simplicity... and to not worry about installing and updating software... The total cost of ownership of our model versus what they have today is a couple of orders of magnitude different."

Chrome OS is, in Pinchai's words, "nothing but the web" — a Linux-based operating system that uses the Chrome browser as its user interface. It is also intertwined with the other major product announced by Google on Tuesday, the Chrome Web Store.

The store, only available in the US for now, is a repository of applications that can run entirely within the open-source browser, whether on a PC or within Chrome OS. According to Pinchai, "a whole set of apps from the webstore will work offline" thanks to the use of HTML 5 technology, and the Google Docs team is "working on this feature" at the moment.

The offline capabilities will allow Chrome OS-based notebooks to become a viable alternative to PCs, which were built to work in offline mode, for daily use. However, Pinchai was clear that Google intends "to make sure users always have the option to stay connected".

To that end, "every Chrome notebook will ship with built-in cellular connectivity", he said. In the US, Google has already teamed up with mobile operator Verizon to offer data connectivity to Chrome OS users. Customers will get 100MB of free data every month for two years, and they will be able to augment this with plans that start at $9.99 (£6.33) for a day pass.

In its Chrome Web Store announcement, Google named a number of partners that will build apps to be offered via the storefront. Several of the partners are consumer focused, such as Amazon, which has built a Chrome-based version of its Kindle e-reader. However, enterprise virtualisation specialist Citrix Systems also makes an appearance.

Citrix is "excited about the partnership" with Google, the company's desktop chief Gordon Payne said at the event.

"It's absolutely customer driven," Payne said. "Google has been out talking with organisations and they suggested that we partner together. We've spent the last 10 or 15 years taking applications off PCs, moving them to the datacentre... and delivering them as a service. With that centralisation and delivery of enterprise and business applications as a service, this is a natural partnership."

Payne showed off Citrix Receiver, its virtualised application client, running as a Chrome app. Using a virtualised version of Excel as a demonstration example, he noted that Microsoft's spreadsheet application "doesn't launch that fast on a PC".

He also pointed out that "these applications are already within the enterprise, so you can bring in a Chrome OS notebook and access all the applications".

One of the key features of the operating system that Google highlighted was its security. Not only does Chrome OS's non-Windows nature preclude most malware, but it also carries with it the security features of the Chrome browser on which it is based. The browser has seen its user base increase from 40 million to 120 million within the last year, Pinchai noted.

Chrome has received many updates in the last year without its users noticing, Pinchai said, as Google automatically installs new versions on users' computers. He suggested that this approach goes some way to solving the problem of exploits being revealed and patches issued, but users not updating their browser quickly enough to avoid infection.

Chrome is the only true sandbox available in modern browsers — there are several research papers which validate this
– Sundar Pinchai, Google

"Chrome is the only true sandbox available in modern browsers — there are several research papers which validate this," Pinchai added, referring to the concept of boosting security by running operations in virtual containers.

He highlighted Chrome's sandboxing of plug-ins and revealed that Google was "working closely with Adobe to make sure Flash is fully sandboxed as well". Flash is a notorious source of vulnerabilities, as is Adobe's PDF format, which is implemented in Chrome 8 in a sandboxed fashion.

Pinchai said that Chrome OS notebooks would have "all data encrypted by default", adding that Google hopes the operating system will be the first to ship with a verified boot procedure.

Chrome OS notebooks are expected go on sale in the middle of 2011 from manufacturers such as Acer and Samsung. Some people will get a look at the OS before then, as Google announced a pilot programme on Tuesday that will see a test model, dubbed the Cr-48, distributed among businesses, schools, non-profit organisations, government agencies and developers. The programme is focused on the US for now, but Google said it will expand to other countries.

Gartner analyst Nick Jones pointed out in a blog post on Wednesday that, by the middle of next year, the market will be flooded with tablets running rival systems such as Nokia's MeeGo and Google's own Android. "I see Google's recent announcements as something of an act of desperation to keep Chrome OS on the radar screen even though it's far from ready and facing too many competitors," he noted.

Jones added that Google had not addressed the concerns many consumers were likely to have, such as the device's ability to synchronise with an iPod or download photos from a digital camera. "Chrome looks a bit like a device aimed at the last generation of the connected world, not the next generation of the connected world," he wrote.

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