Rethinking the operating system: Chrome OS explained

Back in July 2009 Google quietly announced its new Chrome operating system on the Official Google Blog. Sundar Pichai the VP of product management and Linus Upson engineering director called it Google’s attempt at re-thinking what a modern operating system should look like. “We are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses malware and security updates. It should just work” they wrote.

For such a major announcement it was surprising it was made with such little fanfare. Then again there wasn’t much to talk about at that stage. Only a few details were given: it would be a web-centric platform that revolved around the Chrome web browser; it would target netbooks; and speed simplicity and security would be the key priorities.

Browser focus: everything in Chrome pretty much operates like you’re using a browser.

Chrome OS was originally scheduled to start shipping on netbooks in the second half of 2010. This was subsequently pushed back to ‘late 2010’ at a press conference in November 2009 where the world got its first glimpse of the new operating system. But it wasn’t until June of this year – six months behind schedule – that the first machines running Chrome OS were finally available.

What is it?

Chrome OS turns the traditional desktop computing model on its head by moving apps and file storage to the cloud. The idea is that everything you need to do on your computer can be done through a web browser using cloud services whether that’s checking email working on documents editing and sharing photos gaming playing multimedia or social networking.

The easiest way to picture Chrome OS is to think of the Windows or Mac operating system stripped of everything but the Chrome web browser. No desktop no taskbar no start menu control panel or separate applications. Under the hood it’s a stripped-down Linux kernel running a single application that auto-starts whenever you boot with extra security features built-in.


But there’s more to Chrome OS than simply a web browser. Google has also tweaked Chrome to enable cloud services to run more like native apps which it’s done by allocating each tab its own process and adding support for full-screen viewing and the ability for web apps to tap into local resources like storage and location data.  

Speed simplicity and security are the three key principles behind Chrome OS. Not surprisingly these target the major weaknesses of the predominant Windows operating system. Boot and resume times have been whittled down to eight seconds and ‘instant’ respectively; Google achieved the former by removing all of the standard boot processes so nothing needs to load in the background while the latter is made possible by the use of SSD storage (a hardware requirement in Chromebooks). Chrome OS also simplifies things by removing the need for backups and user-initiated updates and security is built-in rather than added as a separate software layer with multiple layers of protection that include sandboxing verified boot and a recovery mode.

A significant change from the traditional desktop computing model is Chrome OS’s ability to update itself in the background allowing for any security updates bug fixes and new features to automatically appear without pestering the user. Since Chrome OS’s debut on Google’s prototype Cr48 Chromebooks these updates have included a file manager for viewing files a basic media player and improvements to the touchpad sensitivity and HD video streaming. At present only music and video files can be opened locally; other files can only be opened by uploading them to a compatible web app although Google has tried to streamline this process in one of the latest Chrome OS updates by adding one-click buttons to those web apps in the sidebar.

Chrome OS supports multiple browser windows in the event you run out of room for additional tabs and this can be used in the same way as the Spaces feature in Mac OS X for keeping your tabs organised for different uses. Like Windows Chrome OS also supports a Guest mode to enable other users to log-in without having access to your apps and files.

Chromium OS

Chrome OS shouldn’t be confused with Chromium OS which is the open source development version of Google’s new operating system. Both share the same fundamental code base but while Chromium OS is available for developers to modify Chrome OS is a Google product licensed to OEMs and only runs on specially-optimised hardware.

There are numerous Chromium builds that are free to download such as ChromiumOS Flow and ChromiumOS Vanilla. Local consumer electronics company Kogan Technologies is the world’s first company to sell a laptop powered by Chromium OS called the Kogan Agora. Specs include a 12-inch display 1.3GHz Pentium processor 30GB SSD and 5-second boot-time and it sells for $349.