Google Launches Open Source Chromebooks
Today Google announced the immediate availability of their long awaited “Chromebooks”, and they might just be the best competitor to Microsoft and Apple yet. Based on a solid Linux core, Chrome OS is built to be the fastest way to get to the web. Boasting an 8 second boot time, ease of use, and a familiar interface, Linux has finally found its place on the desktop.
The first few Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung feature a clean, clutter free design. Solid black, or black with a white top, and no stickers. A refreshing change from “Intel Inside” and “Made for Windows” stickers that accompany most PC laptops. The Chromebooks look good. The Chromebooks are small and light, and claim battery life between six and eight and a half hours of continual use. They come with standard ports and a webcam, but what is most interesting about the machines is what not listed. Google doesn’t draw attention to the tiny, and extremely fast, SSD hard drive, or the the amount of RAM in the machine, an intentional dismissal of their importance. Plainly said, it doesn’t matter, Chromebooks have speed where it matters, and are meant for only one thing.
Chromebooks run the Google Chrome OS, which is based on the open source Chromium OS project, which uses Linux as its core. Google’s distinction between the Google Chrome OS and the Chromium project is subtle, but important. As stated in the Chromium OS FAQ:
Chromium OS is the open source project, used primarily by developers, with code that is available for anyone to checkout, modify, and build. Google Chrome OS is the Google product that OEMs ship on Chromebooks for general consumer use.
Google uses the Chromium OS project to build the core of the Chrome OS, but adds several hardware specific modifications to the code to allow them to lock down the system and prevent modification. So, you can download and build Chromium OS, but that’s not the same as owning a Chromebook. A Chromebook is more akin to a computing appliance than a traditional computer as we have come to know them.
Also interesting to note is that certain Chromebooks come with a limited 3G plan from Verizon, offering 100MB per month, presumably just to get a taste of the freedom of having an Internet connection nearly anywhere. I’m not sure how long 100MB would last, considering that everything the Chromebook does consumes bandwidth, and that the Chromebook automatically checks for updates and downloads patches when you log in.
The Chromebook addresses several shortcomings of traditional computers. Shipping with flash based SSD drives instead of hard drives means that there are no moving, mechanical parts in the system to slow it down. Using custom firmware to bypass hardware checks, and stripping the operating system down to nothing but bare essentials means that the system boots lightning fast. Chromebooks appear to be targeted at casual users, but the real intended audience might be the enterprise, where the overhead of dealing with patches, software installs, and unreliable PC hardware generates a lot of work for desktop support.
Issuing Chromebooks would require a dedication to a web based infrastructure, and a move away from traditional desktop applications like Microsoft Office. However, smaller companies who struggle with licensing fees and support issues may find Chromebooks ideal.
Chromebooks are the result of Googles focus on getting people to the web as fast as possible, and with as little headache as possible. This is, of course, so Google can show you ads, and make more money. Strangely enough, Chromebooks look very “Apple-like” as an end user product. Open source at its core, with proprietary and centralized control over the shipping device. Google is a powerful company with deep pockets. With Google’s backing, Linux may well have found its place on the desktop at last. It’s just not in a way that any of us expected.