Google Shows First Chrome OS Laptops

The last time Linus Upson worked for a company that directly challenged Microsoft Corp., things didn't end so well for him. But this time, things could be different.

A battle-hardened veteran of the browser wars of the late 1990s, Mr. Upson was an engineer at Netscape Communications Corp. in the early days of the Web, before Microsoft's Internet Explorer vanquished the Netscape Navigator browser to the dustbin of history.

Today, as a vice-president of engineering at Google Inc., where he oversees development of the Web titan's Chrome Web browser and forthcoming Chrome OS operating system, he's not only developing Google's answer to Internet Explorer, he's also working on software designed to rival the very foundation of Microsoft's power, namely, Windows.

On Tuesday, Google will hold a news conference where it is expected the Mountain View, Calif.-based tech giant will unveil the first laptop computers to run on Chrome OS, marking the company's boldest move yet to counter Microsoft's domination of the computer world and to position the Web browser, not installed software, at the centre of the computing experience. Google declined to comment on what it plans to discuss Tuesday.

"With Chrome OS, we're basically giving you the same browser, the same Chrome that you have on Windows or a Mac, but we're building just barely enough operating system underneath it to run the browser," Mr. Upson said in an interview with the Financial Post earlier this year.

"By doing this, we can make the computer much simpler to use.... We want to make it so that the user never has to install software, never has to manage software, or update software or worry about security. By rethinking the operating system from the ground up, we can solve these problems."

Increasingly, people are using Web-based services to do things they used to do with the help of software that was installed on their PC. In addition to Web-based email services such as Gmail and Hotmail, users are gravitating toward cloud-based services such as Google Docs, which performs many of the same tasks as Microsoft's Office software, but through a browser.

Google's bet is that many will be willing to ditch installed software and storage space entirely in favour of a Chrome OS device, which will be little more than a browser in a box.

"We really want to see the Web be how all applications and services are delivered," Mr. Upson said.

"Everything's happening on the Web. All of the companies and all of the services that people are using -- Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay -- all of the applications and services that people are using are Webbased. The desktop ecosystem has basically stopped."

By stripping away much of the operating system, Google is also hoping Chrome OS will make computers faster--sometimes booting up in as little as five seconds -- with the potential to offer instant-on capabilities similar to Apple's iPad.

Still, the computing world has changed dramatically since Google first announced its intentions to develop Chrome OS as a low-cost operating system for laptops and netbooks in July 2009.

Apple Inc.'s iPad has helped usher in the tablet era and Google's own Android operating system is already being used on both tablet devices and netbooks, which has prompted some observers to wonder why Google is working on two separate operating systems.

As well, there are questions about the efficacy of a Webbased operating system that is reliant on an Internet connection. Even when a Windows PC isn't connected to the Web, users can still access much of their data, while a Chrome OSbased machine would potentially have limited functionality when not connected to the Internet.

Although Google will be offering Chrome OS for free to hardware makers -- the company won't generate licensing fees the way Microsoft does with its Windows software -- Mr. Upson believes the software will help Google's core business model.

"We have very good data that shows that if you make computers easy to use, people will use computers more," Mr. Upson said. "If you make computers faster, people will use them more. It turns out when people use computers more, they search Google more. If they see more ads, they click on more ads, and that improves Google's core business."

Chrome Web Store

You may be able to buy your nieces and nephews some Chrome apps for the holidays this year.

We just received this invitation from Google to attend a Chrome-centric event Tuesday. It arrived in our e-mail inboxes early Friday afternoon.

Our guess is this will mark the public debut of the much-anticipated Chrome Store — Google’s directory where users can browse and install Chrome extensions, web apps and downloadable apps that run in the browser.

The “store for web apps” opened up to developers in August. And Chrome 8, which arrived Thursday, is the first version of Google’s browser with the ability to plug in to the Chrome Store — although, at this point, there’s nothing there yet to install.

It’s likely that could change Tuesday. Unless of course Google is going to start selling HTML5 Christmas ornaments or hardware-accelerated menorahs.

Engadget, citing an unnamed source, is speculating the event will be used to launch a laptop running Chrome OS. Of course, the event could see the arrival of both some hardware and the store you can browse to fill it up.

“Installable web apps” may sound like a contradiction in terms. After all, don’t web apps get served to a client from a web server? Well, yes, there’s that kind, and then there’s the kind you download and install. Google describes an installable web app as “a normal website with a bit of extra metadata.” The app is packaged, then downloaded and installed by the user, where it runs in the browser (online or off) and can access local storage.

The excitement around this new software-distribution model has of course exploded ever since the iTunes Store and the Android Marketplace proved it works well for native apps on mobile devices. Now others are shifting the model to cloud-based services built in web standards that run in the browser.

Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser, is also developing its own store for installable web apps based on its nascent Open Web Applications platform.