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Google Launches Chrome OS Pilot

Google has launched a pilot test program for Chrome OS, which may offer an alternative to traditional operating systems such as Microsoft's Windows desktop OSes. Google is giving away notebooks running Chrome OS to those who sign up and qualify at this page. However, the number of devices offered between now and January is limited, according to Google representatives.

The Chrome OS test units contain no branding and aren't for sale yet. According to Google's announcement, Chrome OS notebooks will become available "in the first half of next year" from Acer and Samsung, and other manufacturers will also produce units. Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product management, said in a Google press briefing that Chrome OS was designed to span a number of devices and form factors.

The Chrome OS notebook test units, which are built on specialized "CR48" hardware, feature 12.1-inch screens, full-size keyboards, eight-hour battery life, and built-in 3G wireless access through Verizon. The Verizon plan was described as a pay for what you use-type plan, with 100 MB of free data every month for two years and no contracts to sign. There is even one-day access priced at $9.99, Pichai said. Users can switch between 3G and WiFi wireless access. The devices use Qualcomm's Gobi modem technology, which is designed to allow notebook users access to the Internet wherever they have mobile phone service.

Startup and shut down of a Chrome OS notebook was near instantaneous in the demo at the Google press conference. The devices lack traditional hard drives and instead use solid-state drives. They also lack caps keys and function keys on the keyboard. Users access Chrome OS through a Google account, but the company is also working on standards such as OpenID. Setup is quick. Users choose an ISP, a log-in name, and password, and then take a picture of themselves. The device is ready in "less than 60 seconds." Pichai said that he could compare that setup time with the time needed to set up a PC, but it would take too long.

Bypassing Windows
Chrome OS doesn't use any other underlying operating system, such as Windows or alternative Linux-branded OSes. It connects directly to the Web. For that reason, Chrome OS could turn out to be a potential Windows killer.

Google's last major announcement was the open source release of Chrome OS in November of last year, where the vision of connecting directly to the Web, without the long bootups and shutdowns associated with traditional operating systems, was laid out. While conventional OSes are typically needed for everyday activities such as printing, Pichai described the existence of cloud-based printing support for Chrome OS called "Google cloud print," which is currently in beta.

Chrome OS notebooks appear to be mostly aimed at the consumer market. However, the devices are already being tried out by a number of businesses and organizations, including American Airlines, Kraft, Logitech, and the United States Department of Defense, among others. Pichai cited CIO complaints about the time spent by IT personnel in having to install software, maintain updates and ensure security. He opined that the Chrome OS model offered a total cost of ownership model for organizations that is "a couple of orders of magnitude" better than deploying conventional OSes and apps.

Chrome OS connects to applications located on the Web. The Chrome team actually defined "native applications," in the context of Chrome OS, as "Web applications." Even though there are no installed apps on a Chrome OS notebook, Google will allow "jailbreaking." For instance, there is a hardware switch on the device that will allow other software besides Google's to be installed.

As described last year, Chrome OS will provide security through automatic updates of the operating system. In addition, plugins will be exposed through Chrome OS' sandboxing security-boundary technology. Browser plugin technologies, such as Adobe Reader, will access PDFs through this sandbox technology, it was explained at the press conference. A demo during the event by Ryan Rakowski, director of product management at Google, showed instant access to long PDF documents, including the 1,990-page U.S. healthcare-finance reform bill. Chrome OS also automatically updates the Adobe Flash Player. Flash files are partly accessed through the sandbox at present.

As part of the update process, Chrome OS undergoes a so-called "verified boot" on startup, and Pichai said that Google hopes to be the first company to ship this technology. The verified boot checks for changes to the system. It leverages read-only firmware on the device, which can't be modified by software.

"We are confident that when we ship Chrome OS it well be the most secure consumer OS," Pichai said.

Chrome OS also comes with security for data. By default, all user data is encrypted, Pichai explained. There also is no need to install drivers with Chrome OS. The Google team's model for Chrome OS is to eliminate that requirement, according to the Q&A.

Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman and CEO, briefly described Google's cloud vision at the press conference. He said that Google was reluctant even to build a browser, but that Google is one of the few companies that can address the Internet cloud with scale. He tracked the general cloud effort to a 1997 announcement by Oracle of the "network computer." The problem back then was not realizing what it would take to build great Web apps. However, now with HTML 5 entering the picture (the spec is currently at the Working Draft stage), it is "finally possible to build powerful apps on top of a browser platform," he said. "Even Microsoft has announced its success," Schmidt added.

Chrome Web Store and Browser Updates
Google had a couple of other announcements to add to the Chrome OS news. Developers will have a place to sell their Web apps for Chrome OS notebooks through the new Chrome Web Store, which is currently open for business. Pichai said that about 500 apps had already been created. These Web apps would typically run in any Web browser, and aren't just specialized for Google Chrome. The store is currently open for the U.S. market, but Google indicated plans for broader access "early next year." Store access will be featured in Chrome to help people discover apps, Google's announcement explained.

The press conference featured some Chrome Web Store apps, including Amazon's Kindle for the Web reader application, which will be launched early next year. Kindle is presently available just as a device-based reader, but it will eventually run in Chrome OS notebooks via the Chrome Web Store app. The New York Times has also created a reader available through the store that leverages HTML 5 and CSS 3 technologies.

Google also announced that that its "Google instant" search feature, in which the query is executed as the user types, will be rolling out in "the next few weeks." Google instant will be part of the "omnibox" search/address bar in the Google Chrome Web browser. A Google engineer denied during the Q&A that Google instant constitutes a privacy breach, as Microsoft engineers have alleged. "Those claims are misled and baseless--there's nothing interesting we can glean from that," said Linus Upson, Google's vice president of engineering.

Google's JavaScript engine in Google Chrome, called "V8," has been improved. The speed has been doubled, according to Google's announcement. Pichai said that V8's performance was 16 times faster than Microsoft's Internet Explorer at the time of release. This JavaScript performance improvement soon will be generally available to Google Chrome users, like the Google instant feature. Google automatically updates browsers about every six weeks or so. Part of the reason for the performance improvement is the use of Google's "crankshaft" enhancement technology, Pichai said.

Google Chrome browser use has grown from 40 million users to 120 million users, the company announced. That represents a 300 percent growth rate since January of 2010, according to Pichai.

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