Archive for November, 2009

ChromiumOS: a look in the code, and in the model (updated)

The release of Google ChromiumOS was an event waited by industry analysts with significant anticipation, and the overall impression after the announcement was that it went out as a fizzle, and not a bang. Most comments were centered on the obvious shortcomings of this first pre-alpha release, the significant limits in the supported hardware, the reliance on networking for everything (especially the initial login), the over-reliance on Google services. And all the comments are right-and, at the same time, based on a general misperception of what can be a potential competitor for the most visible part of the IT infrastructure, namely the traditional desktop PC. I had the opportunity to explore the code, build my version, and in general to evaluate the release in the context of the UTAUT model of technology adoption, and I believe that the approach is sound and sensible, and will change the market even if it fails.
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The first misconception is the idea that ChromiumOS was designed as a desktop OS competitor, despite the previous comments from Google spokespersons that the release would have been targeted towards a different market. The reality is that, even in ideal conditions and with technology prevalence (that is, the new technology is invariably and clearly superior to the old one) in presence of strong network effect and market prevalence NO alternative can supplant the incumbent in a short period of time, but can eventually grow its market in small percentage increments. This is especially true if the incumbent has pricing flexibility, that is it is possible to lower prices to fight back economic advantages, by moving the dead loss to some other market sector where there is less competition. This is what happened in the netbook market, with the possible loss of market space to Linux alternatives thwarted by lowering the pricing point of the offered operating system. Google makes with ChromiumOS a technological bet, that is a clear continuation of their overall strategy, and that has a serious potential to materialize.

It is not a desktop operating system. Desktop OS are full-featured, flexible, allow for unlimited installation of applications; on the other hand, ChromiumOS is a thin shell designed to run the Chrome browser as a single application. So, everyone expecting Google to save the idea of the Linux desktop has missed the fundamental point that it is not possible for anyone to fight for the desktop and win in a short amount of time, and without a massive monetary investment. But it is always possible to create a new market, and that’s exactly what Google is trying to do; similarly to when Apple launched the iPhone, very few believed that it would reach any substantial market share, forgetting that the iPhone was not a phone, but an execution platform – something different from all the previous smartphones, for which apps and web browsing were at most an afterthought.ChromiumOS resembles in this aspect Moblin (and shares much code with it) but in an even more radical way.

It requires little or no maintenance and support. What is the single highest source of costs for PCs? Management and support. OS patching and installation/reinstallation, fixing applications, installing and removing apps, checking for malware, identity management… the list can go on forever. The real innovation in ChromiumOS is the use of an upgradeable read-only code frame, clearly mimicking set-top boxes that can upgrade themselves OTA (over the air) for example from a satellite channel. ChromiumOS is capable of managing in a transparent and secure way this upgrade, handling securely interruptions and attacks. This, coupled with a totally encrypted local store, means that the hardware can be effectively thought as a purely ephemeral device that can substituted with limited configuration needs, and that large numbers of devices can be upgraded and managed without human intervention and in total security. Applications are embedded in web pages, and managed as web pages; so the maintenance and training requirements are limited.

It is not really tied into Google. Of course in this first release it heavily uses Google services for everything; but changing that is trivial. The authentication part is managed by a PAM module that can be easily swapped, and login completion (that actually turns your login name in a gmail account) is just a small modification of the SLiM login manager used by the OS to perform the initial login, and can be changed with a few lines of code. The same for the application list (the first icon on the top left of the screen), that is merely a hardwired URL – change it with your own portal address, and you get the same result without using Google. The only part that requires some work is the integration of Google SSO (through a complex cookie exchange mechanism); augmenting that with something like OpenSSO from Sun would not require more than a few days of work anyway.

It is not a SplashTop clone. There are several Linux-based instant-on environments, designed to be integrated inside of a flash BIOS; the most famous one is SplashTop, used in many motherboards and notebooks from Asus, Acer, HP, Sony and many others. The problem of this approach is that it is “fixed”: the image is difficult to update and upgrade, and this means that it rapidly loses appeal. ChromiumOS uses a trusted boot mechanism to ensure that upgrades are legitimate, but integrates it in a clean and smart way, making sure that the users will continuously be up to date.

It does require the net most of the time, but not always. The first login requires a working connection, but then the credentials are hashed and stored in a cache wallet, that allows to enter even in absence of a connection. If the pages allow for detached operation (using Gears, HTML5 persistent storage, or similar mechanisms) the system will work even without a connection. It is a stopgag solution, but is sensible: most of the time spent in desktop applications is centered on online services that are unusable without a connection, so it makes sense when considering the OS as something that is not competing in the same market as a traditional PC. Local, cached web applications may provide in the future more flexibility in this sense, but moch effort needs to be done to make it a worthwhile path. If we consider how people spend time on the PC, we can use the data from  Wakoopa, that ublished recently a measurement of time spent per application on Windows, OSX and Linux, and shows that for example on Windows the time is spent with:

  1. Firefox (28.71%)
  2. Internet Explorer (6.88%)
  3. Google Chrome (6.62%)
  4. Windows Explorer (5.92%)
  5. Windows Live Messenger (4.25%)
  6. Opera (2.97%)
  7. Microsoft Office Word (2.51%)
  8. Microsoft Office Outlook (2.22%)
  9. World of Warcraft (1.45%)
  10. Skype (1.30%)

Apart from Microsoft Word, no other application can be used without a connection; at the same time, most of the applications may be supplanted by future versions of web applications, if the evolution around HTML and related standards continue at the current pace. For games, up-and-coming standards like WebGL and O3D may provide this in a “clientless” way; this is similar to the Quake Live game, that at the moment requires an additional plug-in but that may be potentially recoded using only those standards.

It integrates digital identities better than anyone else. You login once-then, everything just works. Enterprise users with large scale SSO systems sometimes encounter this, but is not that common in consumer and smaller companies, and is a great productivity tool. It is just the beginning: more sophisticated user interfaces are needed (this one for example would be great), but many companies (including Microsoft) are making great progresses in this direction.

It introduces a different model. Desktop PC are flexible, adaptable, usable without connectivity, complex, fragile, difficult to manage. Thin (bitmap-based, like RDP or ICA)  clients are slightly easier to manage, require no support, require substantial infrastructure investments, cannot work detached, have marginally lower management costs. The model adopted by Google leverages the local computing power for rendering pages, reducing back-end costs; is simpler to manage, requires no support and can integrate through plug-ins (or browser functionalities) rich functionalities, like 3D (with WebGL and O3d) or native processing (through NaCL) but always within the context of web-delivered applications.

The future will be the final judge; after all, even if something is not successful directly, it may “seed” a future evolution that is capable of shaking the market substantially. The real impact of Negroponte’s OLPC was not the machine in itself (despite the boatloads of innovations contained within) but the re-framing of the netbook market; similarly, maybe it will be not ChromiumOS that will lead the change, but I believe that it is a bold statement – in fact, much bolder than the code that was released.

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See you at OMAT Rome!

I am grateful to Flavia Marzano for the invitation to being part of the roundtable on “applications and services for handling digital assets”, where I will present an overview of the tools and best practices for using open source in the context of Enterprise2.0. It is part of OMAT360, the oldest running conference on digital information management, started in 1990 and representing a wonderful opportunity to present the last results from FLOSSMETRICS.

The conference is free, with a registration page here, and an english presentation here. I would love to use the opportunity to meet anyone that may be interested in the topics, or in OSS in general.

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