Test flights into the Google cloud

Test flights into the Google cloud

Test flights into the Google cloud

Google is not expected to unveil the highly anticipated Chrome OS until the end of the year, and the software is expected to run, at first, only on the class of low-cost PCs called netbooks. But Wing, along with a growing number of other Google fans, did not want to wait.

These people are downloading home-brewed versions of the operating system derived from the esoteric source code, which Google releases under the name Chromium. Google is developing the Chrome system as an open-source project and periodically releases the Chromium code online, to let other Web developers contribute to the project.

Several resourceful users have taken those undistilled vats of source code and done something Google says it never expected: they’ve compiled it into working versions of the operating system, tailoring it for use on dozens of computer brands and making it available to regular folks who want to preview one possible vision of their high-tech future.

“Maybe it’s because I’m still kind of a kid, but all this new stuff is exciting,” said Wing, who installed Chromium on his Dell Inspiron laptop and recently extolled its virtues. “The idea of an operating system that really only does one thing — gets you onto the Internet very quickly — is perfect for me.”

Chrome, a milestone

When officially released, Chrome OS will represent a milestone for Google. It will not only be its entry into the market for operating systems, long dominated by its archrival Microsoft, but also a new computing paradigm.

The Chrome operating system is designed to allow computers to boot up to the Web within seconds, onto a home screen that looks like that of a Web browser. Users of devices running Chrome will have to perform all their computing online or “in the cloud,” without downloading traditional software applications like iTunes and Microsoft Office, or storing files on hard drives.

Devices running Chrome will receive continuous software updates, providing added security, and most user data will reside on Google’s servers.

Some analysts are skeptical that regular folks will flock to devices that place such severe limits on their computing activities. Chrome OS “is a bet on a future in which we move beyond rich applications and everything eventually gets delivered through a Web browser,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at the research firm Interpret. But that time is not here yet, he said: “Chrome this year and next year is mostly a science project.”

The young programmer

But for legions of Google heads, the fact that it feels like a science project adds to the allure. Working versions of Chromium have appeared across the Web and have been downloaded more than a million times. By all accounts, the most popular and functional have been on the Web site of a 17-year-old in Manchester, England, who goes by the Internet handle “Hexxeh.”

Liam McLoughlin, as Hexxeh is known to family and friends, is a college student and programmer who has taken Google’s Chromium code and compiled it so the operating system can be downloaded to a separate USB memory stick, which can then be used to boot up a computer.

He has spent countless evenings and weekends configuring Chromium to work on various kinds of computers, including the Macintosh, and added features that Google has not gotten to yet, like support for the Java programming language.

He explained that his work on Chromium began partly as a way to demonstrate his computing skills and possibly open doors in the technology industry. It also sprang from an interest and belief in Google’s computing vision. “Many people don’t care about how PCs work and all the security software that comes with today’s computers. They just want to use the Internet,” he said. Since last fall, a small but vibrant community has formed around his work, encouraging him with ideas and supporting his efforts by providing money for servers and other programming tools.

Steve Pirk, a former systems engineer at the Walt Disney Company and now based in the Seattle area, helped to support a coding marathon this year by donating $50 via PayPal, which McLoughlin spent on a supply of highly caffeinated Jolt cola.

Pirk said he tested Hexxeh’s resulting software, code-named Flow, on a half-dozen computers; all functioned properly running Chromium from a USB drive. He says he looks forward to the day when low-powered but fully functional computers running Chrome can help lead to a new wave of telecommuting.

“The more work we do in the cloud, the less need there is for people to be in physically secure network environments,” he said.

All of the activity around these prenatal incarnations of Chrome is something of a double-edged sword for Google. The company wants developers and other companies to work beside its engineers, developing their own versions of the operating system.

But Google says it did not anticipate that regular people would start using Chromium — and evaluating it — before it was ready for prime time. Nevertheless, the Google executive in charge of Chrome OS took pains to express support for the Google fans trying Chromium and for their presumptive band leader, McLoughlin.

Sundar Pichai, Vice President of product management, said that “what people like Hexxeh are doing is amazing to see.” Though he called the Chromium releases an “unintended consequence” of the process of developing open-source software, he said, “If you decide to do open-source projects, you have to be open all the way.”

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