Is Google Chrome an OS?

For a company traditionally perceived as consumer facing, Google’s new web browser looks set to one day turn heads in the corporate world with its heavy SaaS (software-as-a-service) focus on JavaScript applications.

While it resembles a browser and is instantly familiar to any Internet Explorer or Firefox user, under the hood is a V8 JavaScript engine designed to run Google and others’ services and applications as if they were desktop programs.

This functionality means Chrome more closely resembles the task manager of an operating system. Each browser tab functions as a separate process, allowing it to fail without taking the rest of the program with it. While every process costs more in terms of system resources, it results in less memory bloat (and perceived slowdown) over time.

Other features are more browser-centric. A list of last-visited pages appears on every new tab (handy for resuscitation purposes) along with bookmarks and an RSS-style feed of frequently visited websites. The address bar is multifunctional, accepting web addresses along with Google search queries and map directions. Searches can be eerily contextual; for example, after locating a specific hotel on Google maps, a subsequent search for a review offers results assuming you are referring to the same establishment.

Google admits that many of Chrome’s functions have been borrowed from elsewhere – such as the ‘Incognito’ function, which saves no data locally

and masks browsing, download and cookies. Basic web surfing functionality remains little different from any other browser offering.

But it’s the concept of a machine running a SaaS operating system, rather than a proprietary OS and browser platform, that’s attracting attention. Hints of Chrome’s potential are immediately evident in the way it does away with a traditional Windows program interface, omitting a title bar and conventional file menus and taking up the entire screen like an OS shell.

An early Gartner report into the beta edition of Chrome highlights the program’s “sophisticated system management and process monitoring features that cross into operating system territory”. The analyst firm speculates that Google is hoping Chrome will “enable the next generation of browser applications, which can work offline and blur the desktop/web boundary”.

Browser war II

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, acknowledged in an interview with the Financial Times that the search giant had never intended to create a browser, but, observing the rise of web-centric applications, had done so as a defensive measure to prevent Microsoft from sidelining the company with Internet Explorer.

“Microsoft has a history of favouring its own applications and I can give you 500,000 pages of court testimony, document web blogs and so forth and so on about that,” he told the FT, explaining that the open source-based Chrome would directly challenge Microsoft as a platform for “powerful industrial apps”.

Gartner predicts that Chrome’s release heralds a long-term “strategic conflict between Google and Microsoft, assuming it reduces Internet Explorer’s market share and that some usage of MS Office and Exchange shifts over to Google-branded, cloud-based alternatives”.

Winning over the enterprise will be the key to Chrome’s success, the analyst firm predicts: “Over the long term, Google Chrome’s appeal must extend beyond early adopters to mainstream enterprise users – a chasm that [Google-supported] Firefox has yet to cross.”

Few analyst firms, including Gartner, are recommending that enterprises take Chrome very seriously as an alternative to Firefox or IE at this point – even Google insists that Chrome is in beta. “It’s really premature from an enterprise perspective to start planning for this,” says Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish, adding that in the short-term IT managers should be aware of Chrome’s potential to infiltrate the organisation in the hands of curious users, similar to instant messaging applications.

One good reason for business to wait is security. VeriSign has issued a statement praising Chrome’s support of EV-SSL security certificates from beta, “making it the only browser except IE 8 to do so”. But security researchers are continuing to pick holes in the software, and it may be some time before it reaches the same level of security and stability as Firefox.

Another concern is privacy – Google has admitted that around 2% of the keystroke data collected by the address bar’s auto-suggest feature will be stored along with the IP address of the computer or device. This is disabled by an option or by using an ‘Incognito’ tab, but it still raises questions as to what Google plans to do with the information.

Chrome is most telling in that it adds substance to the speculation surrounding Google’s plans for a SaaS future in both the enterprise and consumer arena – as opposed to Microsoft’s more measured half-licence, half-cloud ‘Software + Services’ approach.

Data centres at sea

Certainly, Google is quietly investing in the data centre infrastructure to support its mass hosting approach. According to Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch, Google has 36 data centres around the globe – including 19 in the US and 2 in Europe. Now it wants to go offshore. Recently, the search giant submitted a patent for floating data centres, cooled by seawater and powered by a combination of solar panels, wind turbines and Pelamis P-750 wave energy converters designed in Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

“It can be expensive to build and locate data centres, and it is not always easy to find access to necessary (and inexpensive) electrical power, high-bandwidth data connections, and cooling water for such data centers,” observes Google’s patent application.

A water-based data centre could even enhance Internet traffic management, Google notes, as it “may be moved closer to users, with relevant content sent from a central facility out to regional data centres only once, and further transmissions occurring over shorter regional links. As a result, every request from a user need not result in a transmission cross-country and through the Internet backbone – network activity may be more evenly balanced and confined to local areas."

Further reading

The dangers of cloud computing
Report calls for businesses to wake up to the security challenges of using Internet-based computing services

Cloud computing to cut IT jobs, warns HP
The trend towards hosting services online and outsourcing storage and processing power will shake down IT departments as we know them, predicts hardware giant

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