Chromebook: why Google has its head in the cloud

Cloud computing could completely change the game. sharmili r/Flickr

Google’s so-called Chromebook will be launched next month in the US and much of Europe, and, not unusually, “some time later” in Australia …

The move was announced at the company’s flasghip I/O conference last week, paving the way for the first computers to be equipped with the web-centred Chrome OS (Operating System).

These machines will be built to Google’s “Chromebook” specifications and fall under the category of “netbooks” – notebook computers that are less powerful than fully-fledged laptops.

Samsung will be the first hardware manufacturer to release Chromebooks under the Series 5 label, each of which will be equipped with a 12.1" screen, a dual-core Intel Atom CPU, a 16 GB solid-state drive, and will weigh less than 1.5 kg. While these hardware specifications are unlikely to set any hearts on fire, it is the underlying operating system that is grabbing everyone’s attention.

Chrome OS has been designed from the ground up for a single function: to enable users to employ web-based applications for all of their computing needs.

Chrome OS boots up the computer into a single workspace that is entirely occupied by a web browser. Applications are launched within the Chrome web browser but are executed on remote servers.

While Google’s well-known web applications such as Gmail and Google Docs will be available by default, users can buy applications from other publishers via the Chrome Web Store.

The web is nearly ubiquitous in the Chrome OS – the only other applications available are a simple file manager and a media player.

Keeping it simple: pros and cons.

Stripping down the operating system to a web browser and nothing much more simplifies computing but also makes it more vulnerable.

On the plus side, there is a faster OS with lesser functionality that’s easier to maintain. Google claims the Chromebook will boot up in eight seconds or less and will immediately connect to the internet to check for software updates. It will apply these automatically and invisibly, thereby taking away the responsibility from the user to guard against viruses and other security threats.

On the negative side, the machine will always be connected to the internet, as the application data will be stored over the internet in distant servers, popularly known as “the cloud”.

What is the cloud?

The term “cloud” comes from network engineering diagrams wherein a symbol of a puffy cloud is used to abstract the complicated infrastructure of the internet.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in America defines cloud computing as “a model for enabling on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g. networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction”.

In practice, this means individuals could approach a cloud provider to request a computer, a block of storage, an application or a service, and have it made available to them almost immediately.

But these resources are not available on the individual’s own computer: they are hosted on the provider’s servers and they can only be accessed via the internet.

By making resources available on demand, cloud computing allows individuals to short-circuit time-consuming IT procurement processes, and avoid the investment in maintaining computing infrastructure.

It also enables small IT developers to scale out and reach larger audiences by simply adding resources as needed, thereby reducing barriers to entry and improving competitiveness against large corporations.

The game is the game

Cloud computing has proven to be a game-changer since its introduction in 2007. To use just one example, it has allowed a small game publisher, Zynga, to launch a blockbuster social game Farmville and to add one million Facebook users every week for 20 weeks since the game’s introduction in 2009.

For individuals, cloud computing provides a means of using remote servers for keeping information shared among multiple devices – such as phones, laptops and PCs –synchronised.

Services such as Dropbox leverage the cloud storage service provided by Amazon to provide a storage repository that is automatically backed up, and which can be used to share documents between individuals.

Even Microsoft, the PC software behemoth, has made cloud computing one of its focus areas for the future. It has launched Office Live, a cloud-based solution for creating and editing Microsoft Office documents, similar to the Google Docs service.

The cloud giveth and the cloud taketh away

To invert the cliche, in this case, every silver cloud has a dark lining. People are wary of using cloud services, particularly where sensitive information relating to commercial secrets, health, finance, or national security is involved.

Daily reports of bungles made by corporations in handling private data, such as the recent breach of Sony’s PSN (PlayStation Network) service, have further increased the discomfiture of ordinary users and enterprises with regards to cloud services.

Other questions hanging over the cloud are the security of data in transit, legal issues such as keeping data in domains where it can be subpoenaed by foreign governments, and the dependence on remote servers which can become unavailable without warning.

To quote the celebrated American computer scientist Leslie Lamport: “A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn’t even know existed can render your own computer unusable”.

Tears for fears

To its credit, Google has tried to assuage some of the known fears about its cloud-backed Chromebook. The OS will have Google applications running in the browser but will also be usable offline – i.e. without an internet connection. This means that a trip to the bush will not make your Chromebook completely unusable.

But security fears will not be so easily settled. Google will have to validate that having your data on the cloud is more secure than keeping it on your PC, which is vulnerable to threats such as viruses and Trojans.

So, will the Chromebook take off?

Paradigm shifts

Since its introduction in the 1980s, personal computing has been through two key paradigm shifts. The first was the introduction of the IBM PC (Personal Computer), which along with Microsoft’s DOS and Windows operating systems, brought computing within easy access to the masses. The second was the advent of the internet, which placed information from all over the world literally at one’s fingertips.

The PC rode the back of Moore’s Law (whereby the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on a circuit doubles roughly every two years), which allowed the internet to reach around a billion devices by 2008.

Cloud computing promises to be the third paradigm shift, as long as there is no epic breach of private data.

The truth is, we are already using the cloud every time we use a web mail provider, a web application or a smartphone.

It’s maybe the time for our PCs to join the revolution.

Would you trust the cloud with your data? Leave your comments below.