LIVE at Google’s Chrome OS Launch: “Nothing But the Web”

When Google announced plans for its own operating system, Chrome OS, in July 2009, many observers thought the company had gone a little Microsoft-crazy. Not so, in my opinion. But for whatever reason, the Web-based operating system–described by Google as essentially the Chrome Web browser with a bunch of software drivers needed to run many kinds of hardware–has been late in arriving. This morning in San Francisco, the search giant is expected to announce more details of the highly anticipated software–in particular, the launch of Chrome OS and the opening of a Web app store, plus perhaps the introduction of a Netbook with the OS on it. I’ll be liveblogging the highlights. There’s a bunch of videos queued up on Google’s YouTube channel that I assume will be viewable once the event begins at 10:30 a.m. Pacific. You can view the livestream of the event there too, and Google’s blog post on the event is now up.

And we’re underway, first with Sundar Pichai, Google’s vice president of product management. What’s coming: an update on Chrome (the browser), Chrome Web store, and of course Chrome OS. We’ve been working to make a lot of progress with the open source community.

Google VP Sundar Pichai at Chrome OS launch

When we launched Chrome, we recognized that the Web had shifted from documents to services. We thought of Chrome almost as an operating system for Web applications.

Six months ago, Chrome had 70 million users, who use it on a daily basis. Today, we’re at 120 million users. What’s driving the growth? Speed.

Brian Rakowski, a director of product management (and the guy responsible for the famous Chrome comic book), comes on to provide details of how Google has been focusing on speed. Google Instant is one–he types “e” into the address box and ESPN, which he visits often, comes up instantly. He also shows a very fast PDF viewer–the 1990-page health care bill comes up instantly, somehow. And he shows how Web GL helps speed graphics performance.

Pichai says Google spends most of its time on speed. In particular, he says the V8 Javascript engine has kept getting faster–about 30 times faster today than Web browsers two years ago. Today, Google is adding “Crankshaft” to double that speed, to about 50 times as fast as browsers two years ago (100 times faster than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, he claims).

Simplicity is another key to speed. Originally the browser images took a third of the screen–now it’s down to seven click targets. Also, updates are automatic–30 major ones in the two years since it was launched. Today, a new feature: Chrome Sync. You can choose which data you want to sync across computers–bookmarks, etc.

Security is another focus here. Three main things Google does in Chrome to ensure security: automatic updates, sandboxing (executable files are walled off from the rest of the computer), and plug-in sandboxing, which Pichai says is the next step. Plug-in programs are already sandboxed, but in particular Google is working on fully sandboxing Flash, which has been implicated recently in security exploits.

Now, it’s on to the Chrome Web Store, with a demo. Google is trying to help connect developers with users better, since it’s hard for developers to get attention. He shows the NPR Web app; today it looks a lot like the organization’s Web page, but with some slick touches like the ability to run podcasts in the background. Then there’s games, which Google has been working hard on. Dreams 2, a $1.99 game for kids, looks easy to buy via Google Checkout and install right away. CloudCanvas, for $4.99 a month, can be tried for free. So developers have more options on how to expose and sell apps.

Marc Frons, CTO of digital operations at the New York Times (and a long-ago colleague of mine at BusinessWeek), comes on to demonstrate the Times’ Chrome app: 10 customized skins that let you choose to browse headlines very fast or check out a photo gallery by default.

EA Chief Operating Officer John Schappert comes onstage to demo what the gaming giant is doing in the Chrome Web Store. One example: Pogo.com, one of its properties, has a game called Poppit!, where you pop balloons–kind of a Tetris-type game. Anyway, EA converted Poppit into a newfangled HTML5 app in just 48 hours; it’s seemingly as fast as the original app, with slick graphics. Poppit will be embedded in the Chrome 9 release.

Amazon’s announcing two new apps for the Web store as well. Eva Manolis and David Limp do the demo. One is Amazon Window Shop, which lets you browse Amazon products in a new way–through icons in various product categories. Frankly, I’m not sure what advantage this brings Amazon shoppers, though. Bigger deal is Kindle for the Web, an HTML5 app to get access to any e-book you’ve acquired through the browser. (Question to look into later: If you’re developing in HTML5, why do you need an app vs. just doing this on the Web?)

Pichai says the Chrome Web Store will be prominently shown on the Chrome browser home page, rolling out more widely in the first quarter.

OK, now on to Chrome OS: We started working on it in earnest about a year ago. Why Chrome OS? People live within the browser. But if you look at how most PCs work today, most of the code and the complexity has nothing to do with the browser or the Web. So we wanted to rethink the personal computer experience for the modern Web. In fact, Chrome OS is nothing but the Web.

Full demo from a reference-hardware Chrome notebook: There’s a gallery of app icons, such as Gmail, Google Maps, NPR for Chrome, etc. There’s a short setup where you sign into your Google account, though that’s not required. You can also take a photo of yourself if you want. Zero to done in less than 60 seconds on a brand-new machine. In other words, way less than with a Windows PC. Instant-boot, instant-setup.

Instant-resume feature, where you can go from standby mode on the laptop to ready in less than one second (milliseconds, Pichai claims). Lots of cheers in the crowd, which of course includes a lot of Googlers.

Pichai now demonstrates how Chrome OS allows people to share PCs much more easily–all you do is sign out and another person signs in, to get their own Web services. Friends can use a guest mode that lets them sign in privately (you can’t see their browser history and they can’t see yours).

One upcoming feature will be offlline Google Docs, which will be long overdue, to my mind. He shows how even HMTL5 games can be cached offline so you can continue to play them. The New York Times app can be used offline as well.

But in today’s world, you really need to be connected. Given this is a cloud computing device, we want to make sure users always have the option to get connected whenever possible. Every Chrome notebook will be able to switch seamlessly between WiFi and cellular connections–Chrome OS notebooks will have a cellular modem from Qualcomm built it. He also demos CloudPrint (in beta now), which lets you print to any chosen printer from the cloud.

So how did we do this? Google’s working with Verizon to offer data plans from $9.99 a month, with 100 MB free data a month for two years. (Would like to hear more details on this, but 100 MB sure isn’t much these days–what do you expect for free?)

Security: On today’s PCs, it’s a bit of an afterthought. Chrome OS will do updates automatically in the background, use sandboxing, encrypt data by default, and will have “verified boot,” which means every time you boot the OS, the system checks if any key parts of the OS have been changed, warning you if so. He claims Chrome OS will be the most secure PC OS ever. Gordon Payne, SVP at Citrix Systems, talk up the business importance of security. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that this is Google’s attempt to woo business users, which ultimately is key to its Google Apps push.

And now back to Pichai for a recap of Chrome OS:

* Instant Web

* Same experience everywhere

* Seamless sharing with friends and colleagues

* Always connected

* Security built in

* Forever new, through constant OS updates.

Where are we now? It’s a work in progress. We aren’t fully done yet. Such as CloudPrint being in beta. Need camera support. Need to tune performance. And fix bugs. But Acer and Samsung Chrome OS notebooks will go on sale globally in mid-2011, with other manufacturers to follow.

But Pichai says thousands of Googlers are using Chrome OS notebooks as their main computers. Also, Google’s announcing a pilot program–a Chrome notebook dubbed Cr-48. The specs: 12.1-inch display, full-size keyboard, oversized clickable touchpad, world-mode 3G via a Verizon service, dual-band WiFi-n, eight hours of active use, and eight-plus days of standby, Web cam, no caps-lock key, no function keys, no hard drive, jail-breaking mode built in.

American Airlines, Kraft, Cardinal Health, Jason’s Deli, Logitech, Virgin America, other businesses will try these Chrome OS notebooks in pilot programs. For consumers, a few users will get an offer on the Chrome browser to join the pilot program–we will ship them a Chrome notebook device. It’s called Cr-48.

Damn, WordPress hiccuped and I lost some notes, including comments from Google CEO Eric Schmidt–you can get the written equivalent in his blog post here–and much of the Q&A with reporters. (Cloud computing, I won’t be the first to say, doesn’t always work right.) A few highlights:

No pricing info yet on Chrome OS notebooks. (The pilot Cr-48 devices are not being sold, won’t even have branding on them.)

Key question related to my aside on apps vs. HTML5 Web: What’s the difference between NYTimes as an app vs. on the Web? Pichai: To us, it’s more choice to users and users will guide where this ends up. Some extra features, like offline access. Plus, cutting-edge technologies can be embedded in the app and don’t have to wait until they get embedded into browsers.

Has the rise of iPad (and the declining popularity of netbooks) changed the role of what machines people want? Pichai: We can bring this experience to a variety of devices.

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2 Responses

  1. […] So OK Posted on December 9, 2010 by robhof Wow, that was fast. Just two days after Google introduced its Chrome OS operating system, the reference-design Chrome OS notebook that Google is sending out […]

  2. The thought of all my stuff on the cloud scares me. But the Chrome browser is definitely the least painful of all, and I wish it was the default browser on my iPad.

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