Come on Google, wave those arms! Flap them like you really mean it

8 July 2009

Techcrunch calls Google's announcement of an operating system designed to run precisely one application a nuclear bomb on Microsoft. A commenter further down tones it down a bit: "a bullet aimed at Microsoft". Or maybe it's a fart in the general direction of Redmond, WA?

The Techcrunch claim is based on a largely detail-free, claim-heavy blog post at the official Google blog. It's all vaguely reminiscent of the pronouncements that Sun Microsystems made for Solaris in the 1990s with almost zero evidence:

"It's scalable. Way more scalable than any other OS."

"But it's a warmed-over Unix."

"No other Unix or OS is as scalable as this one. It will scale from your toaster to a mainframe."

As it turned out, it scaled from an expensive workstation to an expensive minicomputer. And its creator looked near helplessly on as Windows and another warmed-over Unix ate even into that space. Oddly enough, Linux can run in a toaster, just as long as you don't mind slamming a few megabytes of DRAM into an appliance with the sole function of heating bread.

What has Google got in its hype playbook? Why, the web, of course. "...the operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no web." What, like Unix? This is either a clue that the infrastructure for Chrome OS is resolutely not Linux or just a bit of marketese that Google hopes people will forget as the project nears fruition. In either case, it begs the question, exactly which core feature do existing multitasking OS implementations lack that a browser requires to be built in? Are there special spinlocks or mutual exclusion semaphores that a browser requires?

In fact, Chrome OS will run on a Linux kernel. Erm, wouldn't that be an OS designed before the web came along? Linux itself may have been born after Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues implemented the initial HTTP protocol. But the core architecture is that of an operating system designed in the late 1960s, which is even pre-Internet.

The Chrome OS will apparently have a new security infrastructure. Built on top of Linux. "Users won't have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates." That's right, because Linux never has to implement security updates. Oh, wait a minute...

It's possible that Google will insert checks for buffer overflows and other common attacks. But those modules have been available for Linux for some time.

"We have a lot of work to do, and we’re definitely going to need a lot of help from the open source community to accomplish this vision." So, this marvellous OS that is designed in the era of the browser...isn't really ready yet? It doesn't launch until the second half of next year, although an early version of the source code should arrive in the autumn of this year. But the early FUD clobbers Ubuntu and the rest. And Android.

The FUD has already infected Techcrunch where, apparently, Android just isn't built for the x86, whereas Chrome OS is. I'm sure that kind of thing really bothered the engineers at Apple when they looked at OS X. "You know, this thing just isn't built for x86...oh no, it's OK, I found an x86 compiler."

Android remains Linux with some kind of weird Java engine on top. Java was designed explicitly to run on register-limited architectures such as the x86. Unix was designed well before RISC architectures such as ARM existed. Plus, in the meantime, Intel came up with a few tricks to get around the register-based limitations in the x86. Plus, as MC Siegler then admits, there are ports of Android to the x86.

Google admits there will be overlap between Chrome OS and Android but adds: "we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone". Translation? "You work it out. We will have two Linux-based OSs, one of which is designed for netbooks and desktops but has been hobbled more than the one for phones."

So, in an environment where support for Android is respectable, but still fragile, Google drops a bomb on its own OS. And, because the time between announcement and actual code is relatively long, people won't have a good idea of how restricted the Chrome OS environment is. It also begs the question of whether Android is actually web-ready if Google needs another go at an OS.

Finally, you have to consider the main target: Microsoft. Google claims applications written for Chrome OS will run in any "standards-based" browser. Stalwarts of web development will probably let out a hollow laugh at this point: which standards are we talking about here? And, note the emphasis: apps written for Chrome. It does not mean the converse.

As an example, Outlook Web Access runs well in precisely one browser: IE. Does Google plan to reverse engineer IE web apps in the hope of running them on its own browser? Or does it hope that the primary destination for Chrome OS users will be Google Apps and need not worry about the rest?

4 Comments

Until there is more information you're flapping just as wildly as Google.
"Standards based" / "Outlook Web Access". First time I've seen those 2 in the same paragraph. There's a reason it only works well in IE.
Stalwarts of web development will know there are 2 standards, Microsoft's and the published standards that everyone else uses. It's only with IE 8 that MS has started heading towards the latter and that's only because they're losing market share.
"Users won't have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates" - doesn't mean they wont happen, the user just might not have to deal with them. The joys of not having to reboot just because some files got updated.
When all MS can offer is a warmed over version of Vista I look forward to 2010 - the year of Linux on the Desktop ;)
Gotta go, I think my new kernel has just finished compiling.
(ooh and I cant wait for my Windows7 toaster, that baby is going to rock)

There are probably three types of standards in web development:

1) The 'official' W3C standards
2) The Microsoft version
3) The generally accepted bundle of standards offered by non-Microsoft suppliers.

That Microsoft has attempted to drive its own batch of standards is not Google's fault. But it is Google's problem. Faced with a choice of getting email out of Exchange and support from Microsoft-oriented IT support staff and not getting that, a lot of users are going to err on the side of going with the Microsoft option. You can embrace as many standards as you like but if they are not the ones that the target market needs, they are next to useless.

And the more the Linux community balkanises, the better things get for Microsoft.

Unless MS intend for IE 8 to run OWA in compatibility mode for it to work I'm hoping new versions of Exchange will be more standards compliant. One can hope.
But unless users realise that net/smartbooks aren't little pc's they will keep wanting to run all their usual programs and Linux wont cut it. More than that I'm not convinced people will be happy being restricted to web applications only, but we dont yet know if native apps can be used on Google OS. Doubt it very much if they're not using Gnome or KDE.
Something like Moblin might end up being a better option but I cant see that making any progress. I'd like to think with Google behind it this OS has a chance of gaining some traction. One can hope.

I forgot to post this earlier. I believe this is what a Windows 7 toaster will be like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZslRQvv5zM

On compatibility: Microsoft is, on average, pretty good at picking which 'standards' it will embrace or extend to maintain its market power (although it's made some serious fumbles). Exchange is a great way of protecting Windows. I can't see Redmond doing too much to make OWA and other stuff too W3C compliant.

On web apps: big apps will run in the cloud, possibly with some sort of fallback to the client in case the network connection goes bad. But the client, I believe will be little more than a Javascript sandbox plus Flash and a few other native bits to make Youtube etc work. Google may believe that the future lies in ultracheap local computers, but may have underestimated the ongoing cost of maintaining reliable bandwidth, particularly over wireless connections. On the other hand, this is the kind of machine comms companies would love to supply to low-rent users: very little maintenance, ultracheap hardware and utterly locked in to a service offering.

Personally, I think Moblin is a non-starter, pretty much like Limo. Moblin is the kind of OS/platform the civil service would invent. Something like Ubuntu was probably Linux's big hope, but the majors will unwittingly pummel it into the ground while Microsoft and Apple laugh at them. It's UnixWare all over again IMHO unless some people suddenly have a sanity attack.