Monday, July 13, 2009

Google's [N]OS

Google Chrome OS

Every other tech blogger is talking about Google Chrome OS, and since it was the biggest news of last week I'd be remiss to not talk about it myself. Wikipedia (the ultimate authority for information on anything, of course) defines an operating system (OS) as "an interface between hardware and user...responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of the computer". To break it down even more: it abstracts away the details of the hardware its run on so that software manufacturers can easily develop the software you love/hate to use. Of course, you probably are already familiar with the biggest ones on the market right now: Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, and, probably to a much lesser extent (save the geeks out there), Linux. Linux is the only one of the three that's open source, and as such it comes in many flavors, or distributions, so that it's customized for the end user in terms of what's supported right out of the box and what it's optimized for. Companies on Linux tend to use Red Had Enterprise Linux while a lot of individuals and universities tend to stick to Ubuntu, and there are many more in between. In fact, webOS (the OS for the Palm Pre) is running on Linux as is Google's
Android mobile platform (currently only available on the G1 in the U.S.). Typically, Linux companies make their money off of support.

Ok, that's enough of a crash course in operating systems, so what is this Google Chrome OS thing? In a very terse nutshell, it's Google's flavor of Linux designed for netbooks (i.e. cheap, small, highly portable laptops) fitted with the Google Chrome browser. This is why I call it a NOS (read: No S) and crassly called shenanigans after a couple of beers last week at trivia. I've been called out by multiple people on this: it is, by definition, an OS. However, this is only because it's built on Linux. They're not really developing a new OS, just re-packaging Linux for a more mainstream audience and calling it their own (granted, with the disclosure that Linux is running under the hood). A part of me thinks it's cool that rather than re-inventing the wheel they're building on a great product that more people should be doing, but another part of me feels ripped off that they're getting all this free press from combining two old technologies.

To be fair, it's not a bad idea: building an OS that is tightly integrating with the Internet we've come to know and love. It's really quite incredible how far along the world has come as far as embracing the Internet in just the last 10 years. There was no YouTube or social media or even the idea of blogging as it stands today - it was almost the wild west of the Internet age. Things have come to the point now where a lot of average consumers don't do a whole lot on their computer that's not in their web browser, aside from maybe word processing, spreadsheets, or slide presentations. Meanwhile, Microsoft came out with XP, which was a solid and time appropriate OS, followed by Vista, which wasn't a bad OS but was plagued with development hitches and being heavy overall. This was ironic because people often complain that their computer are too slow as it is even despite getting newer and newer machines. Apple made incremental improvements to OS X, which were great but they've really been playing it safe for a long time now with OS X. No one has taken up the banner of an extremely minimalist OS. The reason that I've come to appreciate Chrome OS in the past week is that at work I've become accustomed to realizing what we really need in the software we're currently developing rather than all our long-term goals. I never short-change opportunities to make our long-term outlook better, but it's really important to not compromise getting done what needs to get done this year.

I believe that Chrome OS was born out of a fear that the trend of installing Android on netbooks would continue and give Google a black eye since Android is not intended for use in mobile devices bigger than the size of your average smartphone and is optimized for very different operations from a netbook. If Android gains steam in netbooks, they have to build Android as being good for phones and netbooks, or else speak out against their own platform for use in netbooks and make themselves look bad. So, in a way, creating Chrome OS makes a lot of sense for them. It's intended to have a thin UI and their full-featured Chrome browser, hopefully with improved security functionality (it's not terrible as is, but if it's going to be the main attraction then it could stand to be beefed up).

TechRadar has a good explanation of the announcement blog post and points out rightly that it is going to end up being placed as a competitor to Windows 7 even though it's not going to be scaled to meet the functions that Windows 7 is intended for since it's merely a front for a web browser. Apparently, it'll be available for developers later this year and shipped with netbooks in the latter half of next year. Rafe Needleman at CNet makes another great point about it: netbook users so far, on average, haven't been all that impressed with netbooks running Linux. This isn't a sleight at all to Linux on netbooks, that's just based on the sales figures of Linux netbooks versus XP ones. With Windows 7 RC1 weighing in as more performant than XP, it's going to be an uphill battle for Chrome OS once it comes out an Windows 7 is already established in the market.

If things weren't interesting enough already: the products under the Google Apps brand are now officially out of beta (including Gmail, Calendar, and Docs). So Chrome OS is trying to sell everyone on trusting web applications and is removing the beta tag from their other services to help promote that. It's smart, but I wouldn't short change Microsoft amidst all this. It's already well known that they're going to be beefing up Office in its forthcoming release to have collaborative features online that compete with Google Docs except for fully supporting all the Office formats in a richer way. There's also Gazelle, which aims to add significantly more security to the web browsing experience and could someday replace Internet Explorer.

All in all, I'd call Google Chrome OS a well-calculated experiment for Google. I respect their noble aims of speed, security, and simplicity, even if it isn't radically innovative. It is the next logical step in our acceptance of web applications since we now have smartphones with fully-realized web browsers, and so people with those phones are going to typically be more excited about web services than shrinkwrapped software. Whether or not they want this same experience from their netbook though or if they want what Windows 7 can provide remains to be seen.

Firefox Continues to Swallow Market Share

I'm really impressed by the beastly download numbers Firefox 3.5 has gotten weighing in at 5 million downloads in its first 24 hours (and is now at over 14 million downloads). This doesn't best the 8 million downloads for the release day of Firefox 3. I didn't know until reading that article that Firefox had been downloaded more than 500 million times last year, which is incredible. To top it off, Internet Explorer has lost 11.4% market share since March while Firefox 3.5 already claims 2.5%, which almost seems impossibly high to me except for the fact that it makes sense that 10%+ of Firefox users are huge fans anxious for upgrades. It may be a couple of months yet for the dust to settle on this upgrade an the IE upgrade to version 8 for us to see a more definitive trend though.

Meanwhile, we have improved performance and stability to look forward to in future releases of Firefox with the start of the Electrolysis project to investigate gains to be had from multiprocess browsing. In computer science, it feels like the solution to any performance problem is to throw more hardware at it or parallelize into multiple threads (5 cooks in a kitchen working on different parts of an entree will be much more efficient than one guy doing it all in serial). These improvements probably won't be ready until Firefox 4.0, at the earliest, but it will certainly bring it up to speed with one of the more innovative concepts that Google's Chrome browser brought to the table at its release.

DPRK Gets Cyber Frisky

Yesterday was a pretty eventful week in security. The biggest thing that happened was the crazy Distributed Denial of Service (DOS) attack staged last week against dozens of government and commercial sites in the US and South Korea, which North Korea is alleged to be behind. The 50,000 infected computers in the botnet actually had a program capable of wiping the machines clean to the point of being completely inoperable, though this functionality was not triggered (possibly to be triggered at a later date). That's pretty scary. To make matters worse, we can't actually prove that it was North Korea, so far. Given their lack of tech savvy, it's much more likely to have come from China given their recent track record. Maybe they were trying to incriminate North Korea, but what did they have to gain from these attacks? Was it a cover to steal information?

If that didn't scare you, Goldman Sachs was revealed to have been compromised last weekend by a Russian immigrant who stole top secret trading codes. Compromising a financial company like Sachs could unfairly game the stock and bonds market for ill gained profits. Amdist all the issues the financial markets have faced in the past couple of years, its no big surprise that this story didn't get too big last week. It shows that maybe these companies aren't as secure as we trust them to be and I hope that it'll encourage them to audit their current security measures (including Goldman Sachs).

In somewhat less scary news, Twitter has started suspending the accounts of users with the Koobface virus, which spreads itself through malicious tweets for a bogus URL that ultimately installs malware on the victim machine programmed to receive remote instructions. I'm definitely impressed with Twitter's aggressive measures to try to minimize the effects of this virus. I hope that they continue this trend, but I'd really like to seem them have their own URL shortening service built-in to the platform to filter out malicious links like these.

Now that you're good and scared, Techradar has an awesome roundup of tools that will fit on a flash drive to keep you safe while you're on-the-go. Go download them now!

The 7 Types of Best Buy Employees

This is the kind of Internet story that's always fun to read. Early last week, Gizmodo posted an article with a graphic that outlines the 7 types of Best Buy employees you'll find in any Best Buy store no matter where you are. It was pretty brutal but definitely funny as you've almost certainly met one of these people if you've ever been in a Best Buy, though narrowing all Best Buy workers to 7 types is definitely a tad harsh.

This article made its way in a lot of people's inboxes and RSS readers, and Best Buy could've easily ignored it as simply one blog's jab at their image. Instead, their CMO responded with the 1 type of Gizmodo blogger. I have to admit, it's pretty funny. Gizmodo accepted it in good humor in an attempt to spit in the face of the intent of the post, and they felt successful even though the feeling I'm getting from comments I'm reading is that Gizmodo got owned.

Why am I talking about this? Besides being a fun story, it's a great example of the right way to deal with a situation like this. Best Buy didn't make a big deal out of it, but a simple blog post dealt with it for just the audience that heard about it in the first place rather than the whole country via a mass media outlet. Plus, it wasn't a stodgy professional response, it showed that they actually had a soul. I was impressed. I'm still not going to shop at Best Buy because I absolutely adore Prime and hate the customer service I get at Best Buy (it's also not at a convenient location for me), but at least I have some more respect for them now.

Everything Else

I'm way over the time I allotted for this post (which happens every week so I don't know why I'm consistently surprised), but I do have some more articles to at least point you to for your own reading pleasure.

ASCAP is now going after people who embed YouTube videos of content protected by ASCAP in a slimy way to try to tell everyone how greedy they are about what they own. If they really want to mark their territory they should just walk into people homes and piss on their music collections.

The Boston Globe ran an article I enjoyed reading about why voicemail is dying. They're completely right, in my opinion: I hate getting voicemails because I don't have time to listen while at the office or it's not easy while to while walking home from the gym, but a text is much easier for me to process while I have headphones on.

Microsoft's XML rendering engine takes on deciding how it thinks the XML specification should work instead of how it does in rendering your XML. Aside from being totally contrary to the whole point of a standard, now that it's been done they can never undo this wrong. Ugh.

Twitter has been experimenting with ads on select profiles. I don't think this is the cash cow they need, but at least they've finally started trying things out.

Maximum PC has a wonderful Windows 7 upgrade guide including a bit of information I actually didn't know when asked the other week: each edition will include the 32-bit and 64-bit installations for both types of processors. For those who don't know what that means: you can use more than 4 GB of RAM with Windows 7 without getting a separate disk.

Rather than dropping the price of the PS3, it looks like Sony will be selling a bundle through Best Buy with arguably the two hottest games (Killzone 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4) for the standard $400 for 80 GB. Subtracting the price of the two games, this is about on par with was the PS2 cost at launch ($300), but they should really still drop the base price.

(Warning: shameless self-promotion) Amazon dropped the price of the Kindle 2 last week by about 15% to $300, which makes the gap between it and the DX more pronounced and makes it a much better deal. From playing with it hands-on, I have to say that it's a pretty slick, fun device. While I'm doing shameless promotion: Amazon Wireless also launched last week selling phones for Verizon and AT&T with the goal of bringing the tried and true Amazon customer experience to an audience that typically has a rough time buying phones.

Speaking of phones: Verizon and Sprint have committed to restricting all future phones they take on to having WiFi support. This is a great step forward to reducing consumer confusion in buying phones from them.

The Blackberry Tour launched today.

finally reading version 1.0! This is the best video player out there for watching any kind of content on any operating system.

The people working on the HTML 5 spec couldn't agree on a video codec, so the standard has dropped creating an open source video codec. This is unfortunate news, but at least the standard supports embedding video.

I hope everyone has a great week!

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