Past cloud-based operating systems hint at Google Chrome’s approach

In the world of computer technology, we’re used to systems loaded with either a Mac OS or a Windows OS. What will Google’s newfangled, Linux-kerneled Chrome OS bring to the table?

Luckily, we can answer that question to an extent, even though we haven’t seen it in action. Google announced that its operating system will be modest and lightweight, with most of the user experience taking place online. This description suggests something similar to the handful of OSs dedicated to cloud (that is, Web-based) computing that have emerged over the past few years.

These cloud OSs most closely resemble souped-up Web sites, with shortcuts to different Web-based apps. In contrast, Chrome OS will be installed directly on a machine’s hard drive, with simplified desktop access to Google’s own Web applications.

You won’t store much beyond the Chrome OS kernel on your local drive. Google’s late-night blog post on July 7 teased us with the idea that users will store data on Google’s servers and that all applications will be Web-based. With this in mind, we decided to try a few other existing cloud OS options to get an idea of what they can bring to Google–and what Google can bring to the cloud.

gOS: Google Chrome OS’s Older Sibling?

gOS is a simple, Linux-based operating system that works with Google Gadgets. Like Google Chrome OS, gOS is installed on a system’s hard drive, and thus doesn’t qualify as a traditional cloud OS. It also uses Google’s Web-based applications, such as Gmail and Google Docs. We took gOS for a spin on a Lenovo Ideapad S10, to see how it performed.

Following some initial hitches with the installation (the gOS installer wouldn’t let us partition our hard drive), gOS proved to be pretty basic. Looking like a stripped-down version of Mac OS X, it opens with Google Gadgets (Mac-inspired widgets that include a weather tracker, an analog clock, and a calculator) all over the desktop alongside cute icons that point to Google Web apps.

gOS comes with some installed software, including Skype, Firefox, and the Open Office Suite. Presumably, users can install other Linux-compatible applications, too. A big advantage of having the OS located on the hard-drive, we noticed, is that gOS outperformed exclusively cloud-based OSs.

Google Chrome OS will likely share some features of gOS, though it will probably offer more-polished dual-boot options, and it might even be capable of running from a live CD or a thumbdrive, as Knoppix, Ubuntu, and other Linux distros are. Since it’s built off a Linux kernel, Chrome OS’s basic infrastructure will be Unix-like. It will include Google’s various existing services and gadgets–but we hope that the similarity stops there.

Google has promised a lightweight, minimalist design–“minimalist” being the key adjective–and the company’s designers did a pretty good job of maximizing users’ space and minimizing waste with the Chrome browser, so we don’t expect to see a lot of clunkiness in Chrome OS.

Chrome OS and True Cloud OSs

Google will also take a few leaves from the books of purely Web-based cloud OSs. The apps will be located online; the operating system will be open-source (so expect to see a horde of third-party apps); and the Google server will store at least some of the user’s data. This is ideal for a netbook, where hard-drive space is often limited.

Among the better-known Web-based cloud OSs are Ghost, EyeOS, and XIOS/3. All three are free, Web-based operating systems that offer a limited amount of storage. We tried each one out, and noted the following impressions:

• Ghost has a Vista look–but with clunky graphics, garish colors, and lots of lag.

• EyeOS is a cross between OS X and Windows, with a toolbar instead of a dock. It runs slowly, too, and apps take a bit too long to load, but files upload from your computer to the EyeOS server swiftly, and its design is much more streamlined than Ghost’s.

• XIOS/3’s icloud is the prettiest of the three–its interface looks like the default Vista interface–but it’s also slow to open apps and to minimize.

Though they certainly are ambitious, existing cloud OSs suffer from flawed implementation. Apps open and run slowly, and it’s nearly impossible to do more than a couple of things at once. The designs are clunky. Graphics are neglected. Most servers falter when they try to do everything “in the cloud.”

But, of course, Google is no underfunded startup. It already has developed the Android mobile operating system, tons of Web-based apps, a flourishing e-mail system, and all sorts of user data. Cloud computing is basically computing on the Internet, and in that setting Google dominates.

So if any company can run a cloud-computing, netbook-oriented operating system that combines speed, efficiency, and an attractive appearance, it’s probably Google.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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