Home > Programming, Security/Exploits > Google ChromeOS – Browser wars spill over into the OS world..

Google ChromeOS – Browser wars spill over into the OS world..

By now you’d have to be living in a cave not to have heard the press from Google re their new Chrome OS. First mentioned by Sundar Pichai on the GoogleBlog, news has been spreading like wildfire with even sites like BBC News picking up the story.

Why is this so important? Well, it’s one of those rare occasions when someone releases or announces something which could really change the way we use computers, and of course it’s also something that could really compete with Microsoft. Whether you accept Chrome OS will be a completely new OS, or whether you’re one who believes that Chrome OS is just going to be a user friendly redistribution of a *nix platform with a cool UI and application load, it’s still very interesting news.

Though we’ve had Apple with their own OS around for a long while, and various flavors of *nix vying for consumer and business users (you can still by a Linux – gOS powered pc from Walmart, and they have in the past sold $200 Ubuntu powered machines), good old Microsoft Windows has the world at it’s feet with the most prevalent operating system ever. It’s simply sooo easy to use, sooo easy to install..

Though you may not like Microsoft, you have to admit that having a ubiquitous OS and prevalent business platform (Microsoft Office) has really made using computers easier over the last couple of decades.

When I started using PC’s, I think it was quite a while before I found someone with the same one as I (a Commodore C64 – still the most popular machine ever made). In my peer group there were Spectrum’s, Acorns, Commodore PET’s, a few BBC Micros and a number of other things. Even in the days of the Amiga, sharing files between friends was a nightmare unless they were plain old ASCII text.

Once Windows took off, that all changed, and we soon got to the situation we are today, common file formats, common platforms. For all their evils, Microsoft made computers globally useful. I can share a doc file with pretty much anyone with a beyond-reasonable probability they are going to be able to read it. Microsoft turned computers into tools, rather than into hobbies.

Back to Google though – Here we have a company built and run by geeks  (I say that with love and affection of course), a company which is driven by innovation, which is known for delivering the most beautifully useful applications with seemingly minimal revenue generating potential (Google Maps, Google Books etc).

A company which has, to my knowledge, never failed to deliver or backed down on a promise, and now they tell us they are going to convert their browser into a full OS to make computer use simpler and faster?

Wow – that’s something anyone should stand up and pay attention to.

For those who don’t use the Google  Chrome Browser, you should take a look – yes, it’s not as feature rich as Microsoft IE or FireFox, but my goodness, it’s damn fast – I mean blink of an eye fast compared to IE 6/7 (I’ve not tried 8). It also runs web applications really, really well. Google have a nice online book explaining why they wrote Chrome and how it works – it’s great reading. Chrome is kind of like SalesForce.com – they follow the 80/20 rule – it does basically what you need it to do, and it does it really really well.

Convert that ideal to an operating system, designed to run web apps really fast, seamless on and offline transitions, and a minimal feature set designed to do the basic stuff we need without all the bells and whistles? Could be interesting especially for emerging markets and places that don’t need all the functionality that Windows offers like education, hospitals, government etc.

Though at the moment it seems that Chrome OS will heavily lean towards browser based apps, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – Google already have “docs”, letting you access spreadsheets, word processing etc from anywhere, of course we’re all familiar with GMail – what else does the typical road warrior need?

In the future is there any reason we won’t see the latest versions of games such as Crysis and Unreal Tournament supported? Maybe, why not? Valve have already taken a step towards thin client gaming with their Steam platform,giving gamers the ability to access their profiles and play their games from any connected PC. Google’s (as well as Adobe with Flash, and Microsoft with Silverlight) have their own Native Client lets “web” based applications run code directly on the host processor, giving infinitely more performance than JavaScript can achieve, and O3D gives access to accelerated graphics processors. Developers at Google have already ported Quake to Native Client, and that apparently only took a couple of days. We’re talking local hardware enhanced processing and visualization for web applications – what more can we need?

So what about security? Google are not talking in detail at the moment about what their OS is going to be based on, or how much they are going to let vendors like McAfee get involved, it’s going to be open source according to Sundar, and that means most likely based on some Linux distribution. For any serious corporate/government use, users will need protection from at a minimum:

  • Lost or stolen devices with local data (including passwords to network accessible data) – Full disk encryption etc unless the user data store is clearly defined
  • Spam, PUPs, Phishing and other malware delivered via the web or email – Antivirus, malware, HIPS etc
  • Accidental data exposure via local/remote channels (device blocking, content analysis, outbound email and IM analysis) – Data Leakage Prevention
  • NAC and compliance tracking – Network bases systems
  • Password and access control management

Even if the OS itself is bulletproof, there’s still a lot of user behavior style protection that needs to be in place before the platform could really be considered for business use. We corporate IT people can’t have users sending out emails without audit, we can’t have them locking themselves out of their apps without password recovery, and we can’t have devices going AWOL without some way of ensuring any cached/stored data is protected.

There will I expect be the usual “it’s more secure than Microsoft” dialog, but the truth of the matter will be that there are simply less people writing viruses for it, because it’s not as profitable – remember, viruses and malware are no longer written for fame and notoriety, they are written to collect you and my data for profit. If Chrome OS takes off, you can bet that the hackers will start paying attention to it, with the usual web based attack vectors like redirection and phishing.

Ted Dziuba of The Register has an opposing view in his Fail Blog, highlighting the very valid points that the whole idea that a new OS could usurp Microsoft in any reasonable timeframe is unrealistic, and he’s got a point there – Microsoft is so embedded in modern industry it would be  unfathomable to swap it out and start again:

The notion that Google Chrome OS is going to take any serious market share away from Windows is a product of the pathological Silicon Valley attitude that newer is always better, even if nothing has changed. In terms of functionality, web apps have been a regression from their desktop counterparts. Run business apps over a faulty network instead of from your hard disk? What could possibly go wrong? Can I buy an extended warranty with that?

The idea that a company (like McAfee for example) would make a rapid switch is plainly stupid, but my thought is more about other emerging markets where there’s not so much traction, and not so much historic effort to overcome – Many have tried to introduce *nix systems into the low end space, maybe Google has it in them to succeed?

If you want an example of an “upstart” changing the face of an established market, just look at SalesForce.com.

I’m all for some competition in the OS arena, just not too much. I want computers to be tools that help me do my job, not obstruct creativity and information exchange. If it takes an “upstart” like Google, with deep pockets and a fresh eye to get the ball rolling, I’m all for it.

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