More Google news: Chrome 8, Chrome Web Store, Chrome OS

If you couldn’t figure it out by reading the post title, Google’s web browser that could is being upgraded across the board.  And when I say across the board, I really mean across platforms.  In addition to bringing a slew of updates to the standard Chrome browser in version 8, Google also spilled more details about the Chrome Web Store and its forthcoming operating system based on the browser itself.  All of the juicy details were shared at a Chrome-themed press event on Tuesday, just one day after Google dropped the Android 2.3 with Nexus S bomb.  To say the G-Men dominated this week in tech would be a nasty understatement.  Ready, set, dive…

Chrome 8: Earlier this week Google pushed out the latest update for its desktop browser.  Chrome 8 includes many welcome additions such as a speedy built-in PDF reader and automatic updates.  At the press event, Google previewed some upcoming features that will become fully integrated into the browser in the near future.  First up  is an update to the URL bar, or what the company likes to call the “Omnibox.”  Following in the footsteps of the Google search bar, the Omnibox will handle Google Instant searches.  Chrome will show search results and loading web pages as you type in the box; this saves you the step of pointing the browser to and then making a search.  Search and Instant Search have become one in the Omnibox.  On top of this, the browser will pick up on your most frequently visited sites and will direct you instantly to them as you type.  For example, if you visit often, when you type the letter “e” in the Omnibox ESPN will start to load up; pretty neat, eh?  Google also boasted browser speed and performance improvements.  Chrome now runs complex JavaScript programs up to twice as fast as before (they say an impending speed enhancement called “Crankshaft” will make the browser 100x faster than what IE’s speed was two years ago, and that’s mighty impressive) and there’s full WebGL support.  If you have a copy of Chrome installed on your computer, an automatic update to version 8 should happen the next time you open it.  And again, expect the Instant Omnibox and crazy speed enhancement to hit the browser soon.

Chrome Web Store: Everyone knows about Apple’s App Store, and it’s about time word of Google’s Chrome Web Store got around.  The concept is simple.  The Web Store houses Chrome Extensions, Themes, and most importantly web apps.  What are web apps and how do they differ from plain ‘ol apps?  Google describes them as “advanced interactive websites”, but essentially they are apps built specifically for use inside a browser.  And that comes with perks–the best one being that you never have to worry about updating them.  Since they live on the web in your browser, updates can be automatically pushed out from the developer at any time without you ever having to think about it.  All web app purchases are tied to your Google Account.  Perk alert!  Since that’s the case, all your purchases app live in the cloud and not on your computer, meaning they can be accessed from any Internet-connected device with a browser (i.e. another computer, a smartphone, etc.).  Google is also making it so that apps can work offline, leaving it up to the developer’s discretion.  Many developers are already jumping on board to make web apps.  At the press event Amazon showcased Kindle for the Web, an app that allows ebook readers to read their purchased titles inside a browser.  And no surprise here; your reading library, last page read, bookmarks, notes, and highlights will be saved and seamlessly transported to any device you have the Kindle app installed on (said devices include the iOS lineup, Android phones, and obviously a Kindle reader).  The Store also hosts some games, but don’t expect to find anything mindblowing in that genre just yet.  It’s up and running today, so head over to the Chrome Web Store and check it out.  The layout will be familiar to you; app categories on the left, top paid and free on the right, featured apps in the middle.  Go wild.

Chrome OS: Let’s move on to the main event.  Chrome OS is an operating system that is built and optimized for the web.  Period.  It really is a no-frills OS; it literally boots into a browser environment.  But let’s talks specifics, from the beginning.  Software then hardware.  Setting up a Chrome OS-enabled computer is simple and quick.  In under one minute you breeze through four steps (selecting a language and network, accepting an agreement form, signing in with your Google Account, and taking your account picture using a webcam) and boom you’re in.  Note that you must be connected to the Internet during initial account setup; after that you can access your account in an offline state and load up web apps that are build with offline functionality.  Many accounts can be stored on one machine; there’s also a guest account that does not require login and it is always in incognito mode meaning all browsing activity is wiped when the guest logs out and he or she cannot access any of the owners’ account information.  Safe and secure, just the way I like it.  Once you’re logged in what you see is essentially a standard Chrome browser with minor aesthetic differences.  The clean interface features the Omnibox up top, along with an empty row waiting to be filled with tabs.  In the settings you can pin a bookmarks bar to the top, too.  At the top right corner of the OS sits three icons: battery life indicator, network connection status, and the time.  There’s no minimize or exit buttons; you are constantly glued to the browser that can load websites and web apps–that’s it.

Google’s touting some features on their website and they include: speed (boot up takes about 10 seconds, and resuming from sleep takes less than one second); sync (since the OS needs you to login with your Google Account credentials, all your desktop Chrome goodies including bookmarks, web apps, themes, and settings will automatically and almost instantly port right into the OS upon login; any changes to this information will change on the fly from device to device since it’s all located in your GAccount, which is connected to the cloud); connectivity (Chrome notebooks will include built-in WiFi and 3G; Verizon is offering the 3G service–you get 100MB of data for free for two years and you have the option to pay $9.99 for one day of unlimited data (or $20, $35, $50 for an addition 1GB, 3GB, 5GB of data, respectively), no long-term contract required; security (Google will push automatic updates to the OS, just like it will start doing with Chrome the desktop browser as described above; each web page and app you visit runs in a restricted environment called a “sandbox”, and this means that if one tab gets infected and crashes this will not affected the rest of your open tabs or apps–the threat is contained; every time you boot the computer, Verified Boot scans the system for corruptions and if it detects any it will automatically repair itself and revert you back to a stabilized state; all data is encrypted for your safety; and then there’s guest mode, which has already been described above).  Watch a guided tour of the OS right here.

Hardware time.  At the press event Google detailed the Cr-48, the first notebook to run Chrome OS.  Unfortunately for many of you it will not fall into your eager hands because Google is only releasing limited quantities of the lappy mainly to developers and early adopters.  More to the point, Cr-48 is part of Google’s Pilot Program–think of it as an early public beta program.  Google wants to get Chrome OS into the hands of potential web app developers and the most tech-savvy consumers so that they can gain vital feedback before they let the OS loose into the mainstream wild.  The notebook itself is extremely bland but in a surprisingly attractive way.  Just like the OS, the hardware features a n0 frills design.  It’s not branded by any company (no logos or nothin’).  It’s simply a matte black notebook with the following specs: 12.1 inch display, Intel Atom processor, flash storage, full-sized keyboard and touch clickpad, 802.11 dual-band WiFi, web cam, Qualcomm Gobi 3G chip for Verizon data.  Google claims 8+ hours of battery life for active use, 8+ days for standby.  But let’s go back and talk about the keyboard for a second because Google altered the layout a bit.  The caps lock key is now a search button (though it can be given back caps lock functionality in the settings) and the top row of function keys have been replaced with browser-related actions like forward, back, and refresh.  Ports-wise you’ve got a VGA port and one USB port, an SD card slot, and a headphone jack.  The OS does not support a whole ton of drives just yet, and for this reason Google is promoting what they call “Cloud Print.”  Here’s how it works: on your desktop computer inside a Chrome browser you can attach one or more printers to your GAccount, and then whenever you login to your account (whether it be in another Windows/Mac computer or a Chrome OS notebook) that device will see your printer and print wirelessly to it.  In the end, Google designed this notebook the way they did for a reason; they want notebook manufacturers to look at it and design their hardware similarly. Think of these specs as the baseline for what to expect in future Chrome OS devices.

Speaking of which… Google announced that the first two manufacturers to build Chrome OS notebooks will be Samsung and Acer and they will introduce them into the market in mid-2011.  So yes, there is a bit of a wait.  But remember, Google wants all their Cr-48 testers to push the OS to its limits so that they can close up security holes and catch lingering bugs before a wider official launch.

And that about does it for now.  If you’re used to browsing online inside a Chrome browser, the Chrome OS environment will be instantly familiar to you.  It’s an OS built from the ground up and designed for the web, and Google thinks this type of workspace is the OS and UI of the future.  Simplicity, speed, and security is what Google’s OS is all about.  Whether or not it succeeds in the hotly competitive market (I’m looking at Microsoft and Apple here) is yet to be determined.  Let’s allow the Cr-48 owners do their thing and we’ll check back in a few months to see how well Google is prepared for the big launch.

[Via Google; ChromeOS; Engadget, here & here]

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