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7/9/2009
11:44 AM
Rajan Chandras
Rajan Chandras
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Google's Chrome Operating System: A Revolution in the Making?

Operating system aficionados (I count myself in that group) have had very little to celebrate over the past many years. VMS? Gone. Unix? Gone. Linux? Very much there -- robust, capable and popular -- yet continues to underperform expectations. Ironically, the most exciting OS news in recent times has been...

Too little is known yet about Google's new Chrome OS, but based on the scant information available, it's beginning to look like (a) this might be Google's greatest gauntlet yet, and (b) it just might be a terrific ride for the rest of us as well.

The fact is, operating system aficionados (I count myself in that group) have had very little to celebrate over the past many years. VMS? Gone. Unix? Gone. Linux? Very much there -- robust, capable and popular -- yet continues to underperform expectations. Ironically, the most exciting OS news in recent times has been the OS-killer concept of "virtualization", which is a strange beast indeed -- on one hand, it seems to have the power to make operating systems vanish... yet the closer you look at it, the more it looks like an operating system itself.The basic premise of an operating system is really simple: The OS provides a container for applications to run and to interact with the environment. Think of the OS as a shopping mall, for example. As the designer of the shopping mall, you create the provision of organized but reconfigurable internal spaces, electricity, water, climate control, protection from the elements, security, trash disposal, parking, and an access road. Then you sit by and watch as entrepreneurs create shops in the mall to vend all sorts of things. The mall "operating system" provides the container for the shop "applications," and also provides the means for these applications to interact with the environment. The rest is up to the applications themselves.

Along these lines, operating systems like Unix were (are) a thing of beauty: they provided capabilities such as process management, memory management, I/O and language compilers, and then let the applications (constructed using these languages) explore the strength of these basic services and in turn build up popularity for the OS itself. These capabilities were sparse -- without many frills -- yet robust, and a computer scientist's delight (e.g. the admittedly nerdy joy of designing a process to switch context and the next process in the queue to load up). Even DOS (and its predecessors) had beauty in its simplicity.

Then came Microsoft, Windows and .Net. Operating systems began to bloat and lost sight of the original intent. Purportedly useful OS "services" began to assume the personality of the Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings. Not content with playing a supporting role, operating systems and "operating environments" began to take on a lead role by themselves.

Enter Google's newly announced Chrome OS (not to be confused with Google's Chrome browser) which Google defines as an "open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks," built with a primary focus on "speed, simplicity and security."

An occasional Linux apart, constructing operating systems is for the intrepid and deep-pocketed, conditions that Google satisfies. Nevertheless, the news that Google is introducing an entire operating system -- no less -- is startling, and it will be fascinating to see how the operating system shapes up. The media, for one, is clearly enthused, calling it, for example, a "daring attempt to diminish" Microsoft's stranglehold on operating systems.

It's early days for sure, yet in the end -- as Microsoft proved very successfully -- an operating system is only as good as the applications that can be built to run on it -- not just in theory ("It's open source!"), but an application portfolio of proven breadth and depth -- and this will undoubtedly be Google's greatest challenge.

The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet,Until it joins some larger way Where many paths and errands meet.And whither then? I cannot say.

Let the journey begin.

(Note: The verse is from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien; the indentation is mine.)Operating system aficionados (I count myself in that group) have had very little to celebrate over the past many years. VMS? Gone. Unix? Gone. Linux? Very much there -- robust, capable and popular -- yet continues to underperform expectations. Ironically, the most exciting OS news in recent times has been...

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