Google's Chrome OS is here... sort of, kind of

After long delays, Google's other operating system, Chrome OS, is finally, sort-of, here.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ready to get a copy of Google Chrome OS and test the heck out of it? I was. But, neither of us is going to be able to do it anytime soon. Feh!

Unlike some people I could mention-cough, Zack Whittaker, cough-I do think Google's Linux-based Chrome OS is far from being redundant and does matter. Potentially, it will matter a lot for business users. Unfortunately, I can't tell for certain yet.

I can't tell because instead of releasing a CD or DVD image of the operating system, or even source code for those of us who aren't afraid to compile operating systems. Google just announced today, December 7th, 2010, that in its Chrome OS "pilot program" that a beta netbook, the Cr-48, will be available to a select group of beta-testers.

Boo! I wanted a beta I could slap on my netbook, an older Dell Mini 9, or into a VirtualBox virtual machine (VM). I think Google is missing a trick here. I, and a few thousand other Linux users who change operating systems and Linux distribution at the drop of a Red Hat, would love to take Chrome OS out for a ride. Most of us would then be more than happy to report back what we found and how it could be improved.

Oh well, so much for that idea. Instead, I'll just have to petition Google for one of its un-branded Chrome netbooks along with everyone else.

Eventually, by the middle of 2011, anyone will be able to buy one of these generic Chrome netbooks. These netbooks are being built by Acer and Samsung.That's about all we need about the hardware side for now. Little details like "What's under the hood" and "How much?" are still unanswered questions.

As for the Cr-48, we know a little bit more about it. It will use a solid-state drive for storage and an Intel Atom processor. There's no hard drive, no CD or DVD drive, and, for that matter, Chrome doesn't even support USB yet.

What it will have is 802.11n and 3G wireless. It would be pretty useless without them. The whole point of Chrome, after all, is to be an online operating system. Oh, and it appears as if when Cr-48 retail brothers appear, Verizon will let you have free 3G-no Verizon LTE 4G alas-with them.

Based on today's press conference though, we do know a bit more about Google Chrome OS than we did before. As we expected, and Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president in charge of Chrome OS, said "We're delivering nothing but the Web."

That's not quite true though. Google Chrome OS uses HTML 5's offline storage capability to let you work with applications that are aware of this functionality even if you're disconnected. Unfortunately, that's also very beta at this point. For example, Google Docs uses HTML5's offline storage capability to continue working in Google Docs -- or will once Google updates it to add this capability. Today, I'm told, it won't work.

On the security side, all user data, and they mean all, is encrypted. That's a feature I can get behind.

If you like the idea of a light-weight Web-only operating system that can boot in seconds, but don't see how you could possibly get along without Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, or LibreOffice, don't sweat it. Google, in partnership with Citrix has you covered with a Chrome OS version of Citrix Receiver, the company's new lightweight remote app and virtual-desktop. If all goes well, you'll be able to run your Windows, Linux or Mac desktop applications on your Chrome OS netbook.

Another nice feature, and this one I didn't see coming, is that you'll be able to sync data from your Chrome Web-browsers and other Chrome OS devices. This indicates that you'll be able to run your own virtual Chrome desktop no matter what real desktop you happen to be at so long as it has Chrome available on it.

All of this may be a big deal, because, if you've been in this business for a while, you'll recognize this desktop model. Yes, that's right; it's the 21st century version of the remote client, network computer, thin-client desktop, yadda, yadda, yadda.

If you've been in technology as long as I have, you've heard this idea come and go at least half-a-dozen times. It's an IT-centric idea, beloved by many a CIO, in which clients are mere fingers to the central mainframe hand.

No matter how many companies have tried this approach, once PCs came along in the 80s, it never really caught back on. Despite all the attempts to revive it, PCs permanently moved user power from the server room to the desktop. The combination of the cloud, wide availability of high-speed wireless networking, and Chrome OS, however, may yet make the idea a winner.

Chrome OS, with HTML 5, gives the "desktop" operating system far more flexibility than earlier models. Simultaneously, cloud computing frees users from being tied to one particular server or data-center. Chrome OS may indeed not prove to be wildly successful for most users, but I can see it doing extremely well as a business desktop operating system.

Now, if only I could actually play with this darned operating system so I actually knew more about how it works!

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