Google Chrome, that's just a web browser isn't it?
Not anymore. Google have used their Chrome browser as the basis for a new operating system that shares the same name.
Don't tell me I have to shell out for another OS, I've just bought Windows 7.
You wouldn't be able to buy the Chrome OS even if you wanted to. Firstly it's free, and secondly you will not be able to install it on existing machines. The OS will only come pre-installed on new computers, initially on netbooks from the latter part of 2010.
What's the big deal? I'm quite happy using Windows.
The Chrome OS will differ from traditional operating systems in one fundamental way: you won't be able to install any programs on machines that it's running on.
Sounds about as useful as a chocolate teapot, why would I want that?
The idea is to let users access software applications over the internet so they won't need to install apps on their computer. The OS will be able to run complex apps within the browser, such as full photo-editing suites or 3D games, thanks to the new HTML5 standard that allows web browsers to run application code far more efficiently than has been possible in the past.
It complements the search giant's move towards offering software over the internet, which started in 2004 with the launch of Gmail, the first product in its Google Apps suite.
And accessing software over the internet is a good thing because?
There are a lot of reasons. The first is speed, not storing applications on your computer means that Chrome can ditch a lot of the code that Windows needs to run apps from your computer, meaning a computer with a Chrome OS could boot itself up and load apps more quickly. In a video demonstration Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, said Chrome boots to a login screen in seven seconds.
OK it's quick, what else?
It's secure. Every piece of data saved using the machine with a Chrome OS will be stored online. This should help data loss to become a thing of the past. Also reinstalling the Chrome OS after a system crash will be far simpler than it is with a Windows or an alternative Linux OS. There will be no apps to reinstall on the computer and you will be able to access all of your old files immediately from the online backup. Also the OS will automatically update itself and the apps it runs, removing the hassle of manually installing software patches.
The Chrome OS will also use the simplicity of its set up to eradicate malware, rebooting the machine using a clean image when it detects an infection. On top of that all user data is encrypted as its sent back and forth over the internet and apps are sandboxed when they are run, so malicious code can't interfere with multiple programs.
Well it still looks like a web browser.
Indeed it does and there's a reason for that. While the OS is built on a Linux base, all apps will run within the Google Chrome web browser. Shots of the OS interface show a tabbed Chrome browser window and an icon linking to web apps, such as Gmail, in the top left of the screen.
Each app or web page would run inside a separate tab in the Chrome window. The existing build of the OS allows users to pin their favourite web apps so they are permanently accessible from tabs in the top left of the screen. Panels will also pop up in the bottom right of the screen containing different apps, such as a chat window or a video player, to enable users to carry out different activities while they surf or use other apps in the browser.
The web apps menu in Google's new Chrome OS
(Photo credit: Google)
What about when I'm not online, will the OS grind to a halt?
Not entirely, Google is working to make some web-based apps, files and media available offline. This will work in a similar way to Google Gears, which caches files to allow you to access Gmail or Google Docs while disconnected.
However apps running offline will lose some of their functionality and the OS is designed with 24/7 internet connectivity in mind, in particular forthcoming superfast 4G wireless connections, whose ability to stream large amounts of data promises to deliver more content for less cash in future.
Microsoft can hardly be pleased, isn't this treading on their turf?
Quite right, the Chrome OS could pose a threat to Redmond's dominance of the netbook OS market with its XP and Windows 7 OS. As a free OS Chrome will be attractive to netbook manufacturers who already have slim profit margins on the low cost machines.
The other loser could be the various other Linux-based netbook OS, which have so far failed to make a significant dent in MS' ownership of market. With its high level of brand recognition and the promise of improved performance there is a chance for Google to take a significant share of the netbook market, particularly if take up of the OS is as fast as its Chrome browser.
Like many Linux distributions Chrome is open source, meaning anyone will be free to fully modify and customise the OS. Google released the code for people to start tinkering with last week.
I don't like netbooks, can I get it on anything else?
Ah but these won't be any ordinary netbooks. Google has hinted that the OS will come on machines with larger keyboards and screens than is normal for the mini netbook form factor. It will also only ship on machines with solid state drives, which can access data faster than hard drives and are more robust as they have no moving parts.
Alright you've convinced me, how much will a Chrome netbook set me back?
Erm, not sure. Google won't be drawn on the price of the first netbooks to carry the OS, saying it does not want to predict hardware prices in a year's time when the first netbooks with Chrome OS go on sale.
On the one hand netbook manufacturers will get the Chrome OS for free and the machines it comes installed on will need less processing power as they will be accessing apps over the internet rather than running them themselves. On the other hand Google has said Chrome machines will use solid state drives for storage, which are more expensive than hard discs, and has hinted that Chrome netbooks will have larger screens and keyboards, which would also put the price up.
Click here for screenshots of the Chrome OS
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.