Experimenting with Google Chrome OS

The interwebs have been on fire in the last few days with talk of Google’s new project, Chrome OS. This is a Google version of the open-source project Chromium that aims to produce an operating system less dependent on local hardware and instead stores data in the “cloud”, or internet services. This has a number of benefits, namely constant backups since no critical data is stored on the hardware the OS is running on. It also means it can very lightweight and run on lower level hardware, like netbooks.

With the updates on Thursday, I decided to take the plunge and try my hand at building the OS on my own. If you decide to do the same, keep in mind it is a fairly advanced procedure, despite the attempts of Google to automate the processes. You’ll also need a Ubuntu computer with version 8.04 or later (I used my server running 9.04 Jaunty).

Building Chrome

All the instructions you need are on Google’s page about this very subject. It contains a very detailed procedure for downloading and compiling the system to be installed on a regular computer or run with VMWare. Since I don’t have any spare hardware lying around, I went the VMWare route.

You’ll have to start by downloading the 200 MB files. If you wish to use the tarball version, here are the commands you can use to move to the home directory, download and unzip.

cd ~/
wget http://build.chromium.org/buildbot/archives/chromiumos-
tar zxvf chromiumos-
mv chromiumos- chromiumos/
cd chromiumos

From there you can start with the steps on the above Google link.

The process is relatively straightforward as compared to a standard compile/install procedure, thanks to Google’s use of bash scripts. I proceeded without incident until it came time to run the ./enter_chroot.sh script. This one failed multiple times and it took me some time to figure out that I needed to run ./make_chroot.sh a second time. After that, there were no more problems, and I soon had a VMWare disk to use.

Using Chrome OS

If you wish to bypass the whole build process, gdgt has graciously provided a direct link to a download for a VMWare image. Going that route can definitely save some time.
After installing a VMWare Fusion trial, I had Chrome OS running and was presented with a nice log in screen. If you enter your Google address and password, all the applications should be set up immediately with your data and you can begin to use the OS right away. Once logged in, you really are using a giant browser.
At this stage, the open-source Chromium downloads lag behind what Google presented earlier this week, so some of the features aren’t available yet. Right now there is a Chrome browser, and that’s about it. The button at the top left shows some of the applications available, like Calendar, YouTube, Documents, Hulu and more.
These are essentially just links to the respective Google pages. The top right corner has buttons for changing a few settings and checking battery and WiFI information. Other than that, it’s pretty spartan (there isn’t even a shutdown button).

It is an interesting take on the future of computing, a problem I noticed is that a weak internet connection really dampens the benefits. To truly make use of the features built in, you’ll need a solid pipe, because waiting to even check a calendar is a bit annoying. If/when this makes its way to netbooks with wireless internet solutions, that will make a very nice package.

Is this the future?

Using these early builds, I found myself wondering who will want to use an operating system that deals very little with local storage and functionality. Google’s intention is that it will be used almost exclusively on netbooks — the tiny 8-10″ computers that are mostly used for email and web browsing. They’ve even decided that to use their version of Chromium, you’ll have to buy a new device (it won’t be available as a software only product). For that purpose, I can see it being a success. For full scale computing, I don’t think it will be usurping Windows or Mac OS X any time soon.

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