Ben Francis

Installable Web Apps

2010-10-20 11:47 (UTC)

When I first heard about Google's and then Mozilla's concepts of "installable web apps" I was a little dubious. Surely the whole benefit of web applications is that they don't need to be installed!

But if you think of installable web apps as a convergence of the "app store" and "cloud computing" models (arguably the two most significant trends in the software industry today) it actually makes quite a lot of sense.

The diversity of different software platforms available for smartphones, tablets, smart TVs and PCs is great for encouraging competition and driving innovation – but it also causes problems for both app developers and consumers. An app written for Apple's iOS for example will not run on Android, Blackberry OS, WebOS, Meego, Bada, Symbian or any other competing platform. For consumers this is confusing and frustrating because unless they allow themselves to be locked in to a single vendor they may have to re-purchase different apps for different devices. For app developers it's even more frustrating because they're faced with a bewildering array of platforms to target their software at.

Web applications have different problems with limited discoverability and access to hardware. To a web browser web applications are no different to any other web site which means that the apps can easily get lost in the ocean of content on the web. Web apps also traditionally have very limited default access to client-side hardware for security reasons which limits their capabilities when compared to native applications.

Installable web apps can combine the best parts of web applications (the benefits of cloud computing and accessiblity from any device) with the best parts of the app store model (easy distribution and discovery of software which has full access to the device's hardware). This new breed of apps could leverage web technologies to reach the whole range of competing platforms with a single application which can be distributed via a range of competing app stores. By "installing" a web application the user can pre-approve access to local hardware like offline storage, accelerated graphics and geolocation to allow the app to make the most of the hardware it's running on and the user can keep a local repository of all the applications they use.

Both developers and consumers only have to worry about one kind of application running on one open platform (the web), but still have a choice of hardware and app stores. In this model the only people who lose out are the corporations who seek to lock consumers into their own products and services.

It could take a long time for installable web apps to become the predominant model of software distribution, but the idea of converging cloud computing with the app store model makes the idea very appealing and might go some way to explaining why Google currently has both the Android and Chrome OS operating systems in development. Each OS is approaching the convergence from a different direction whilst maximising on the market potential of what can already be done today.

I hope that standards for "installable web apps" can be agreed upon sooner rather than later so that if this model does become a growing trend, the new breed of apps will not suffer from the same fragmentation as other platforms do today.

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Rise of the Smart TV

2010-09-20 13:35 (UTC)

Reposted from 

Apart from netbooks, tablets and smartphones another key target device for accessing Webian Home Server will be TVs. With big players having recently announced their entries into the smart TV space, this blog post explores their different approaches and the unique challenges of designing for the TV.

Google TV

Many companies have tried to combine web and TV experiences before, but it's never really caught on. Google believes that their approach will be a success because they aren't trying to re-create the web for the TV or make you choose between the web or TV, instead they want to give you access to the whole of the existing web and all the channels you already receive, as well as allowing you to install apps from the Android marketplace all from one device.

Google TV

Google TV will allow all of this to be done via a 10ft interface with a remote control including a full QWERTY keyboard and pointing device. The software stack will include the Android operating system, Chrome browser, Flash and a new IP-based protocol to interface with DVR boxes allowing you search TV listings and schedule recordings.

Rather than a releasing a single Google branded device, Google has defined a standard hardware and software platform which will be implemented by multiple device manufacturers. Among the first will be an HDTV and BluRay player from Sony and a set-top box from Logitech which are expected this autumn.

Apple TV

Apple has recently announced the release of the latest generation of Apple TV which takes a very different approach to that of Google. The original version of Apple TV was released in 2006 but didn't prove to be a huge success. In the keynote announcing the new version, Steve Jobs explained that Apple had learnt a lot from the customers who did buy the original set-top device and that this time they think they've cracked it.

Apple TV

Apple's observations were that consumers want premium HD content delivered to their TV, but they don't want a "computer" on their TV or to have to manage storage on their TV or sync content with other devices. Their response is a new generation of Apple TV which is a smaller streaming-only device which streams content from other Apple products (iPod, iPhone, iPad or iMac) over the home network or from Apple's partners over the Internet with a rental model.

The new Apple TV is characteristically proprietary but well designed, with a slick custom UI for a closed list of tightly integrated online services. Apple has chosen a much simpler remote control with just a few buttons and opts for an interaction style much more familiar to TV users.


Another smart TV option comes in the form of the Boxee Box from a small startup in the US. You can already download a beta of the Boxee software to your PC but with "Boxee Box", D-Link has manufactured a piece of hardware dedicated to using Boxee on your TV which is available to pre-order now.

The Boxee software has an interesting heritage (having been derived from the open source XBMC project) and has a great UI which is well suited to a 10ft interface. The remote control which comes with the D-Link device has a simple ordinary looking remote on one side, but you can flip it over to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard if you need it.

Boxee is pretty rich on features, it will let you stream films, TV shows, music and photos in a large variety of formats over your home network and adds a social dimension by allowing you to share what media you're viewing with your friends. Boxee will also have a Webkit-based web browser built in and is extensible through the development of apps.


Whilst big and small tech companies in the US launch their entires into the TV space, big media companies in the UK have been collaborating to create a new platform called YouView. YouView is billed as a replacement for the popular free-to-view TV "FreeView" boxes currently popular on this side of the pond.

YouView (previously codenamed Project Canvas) will provide the familiar digital TV channels but will also provide on-demand catch-up content from all of the major UK channels on your TV. YouView will also let you pause & rewind live TV, it will provide pay-TV options and will allow developers to create apps for the platform.

The BBC's heavy involvement in YouView is controversial with some other media companies who complain that the license fee funded corporation should not be using their resources to develop this platform which they argue damages competition for smaller players. Although the collaboration of so many large media and communications companies makes YouView a compelling choice in the UK, it doesn't follow existing standards common in Europe and the rest of the world.

Currently YouView is publicly little more than a collection of technical documents available on the web, but the first devices are scheduled to be launched in Q1 2011 and are likely to make a big splash in the UK.

Other Players

The products described above seem to have caught the attention of the media and blogosphere recently, but there are of course many other options out there. Other big players in this space include Microsoft's older Zune and Mediaroomplatforms for the XBox 360 games console and set-top boxes respectively and Samsung's own app platform for their high end TVs. There are also many open source projects like MythTV which provide a geekier way to create your own smart DVR.


The four different products described here take quite different approaches to the smart TV problem but also have similarities. I very much support Google's open approach but they could learn a thing or two from Apple's user experience, I'm really not sure a QWERTY keyboard and pointing device is going to catch on in the living room – the TV is not a PC. Boxee provides a compelling alternative but their app platform may struggle faced with competition from Android and others. YouView will be difficult to ignore in the UK but it provides yet another platform to develop apps for.

One thing all four have in common is the idea that the TV is for streaming content from other sources, not as the media centre for the home. The smart TV solutions presented here allow you to stream media from the Internet or from other devices like PCs, tablets and smartphones on the home network to your TV – but there is no central store for your whole media collection which can be accessed 24/7 by all of these devices.

If there was such a centralised media store then creating an app for every smart TV platform, mobile platform and tablet platform in order to access that media would seem impractical. The common denominator among all of these devices (with the exception of Apple TV which currently offers no opportunities for third party development) is the web, specifically HTML5. A single HTML5 web application hosted in the home could allow access to your entire media collection 24/7 from all of these devices.

Central Home Media Store

The challenge for such web applications will be to create a user interface which works well on such a range of form-factors – from a small multi-touch smartphone through to the 10ft interface of a smart TV with a simple remote control. This will require a new breed of applications which can be controlled in a variety of ways and can adapt to a range of different screen sizes. Some examples of these experimental new types of web applications are YouTube LeanbackGoogle Reader Play and Clicker but it's likely to take a long while for best practices to emerge.

With approximately 1 billion PC users, 2 billion mobile users and 4 billion TV users worldwide – web applications with the potential to support all of these devices would seem very compelling indeed!

This is why the Webian project will strive to create a graphical web interface which provides an enjoyable user experience across all of these form factors.

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Webian Project Inception

2010-08-24 11:41 (UTC)

A quick update on some foundations being laid for the Webian project.

The project scope has been set. Broadly this covers managing photos, music and videos but with some potential future directions and specific exclusions as well. Some very high level requirements have been developed for the first release with a focus on photo management.

The focus for the first release will be on making a really good job of photo management using a slick HTML5 interface. That includes uploading photos, organising them into albums, tagging them, subscribing to photo feeds, browsing and searching.

A simple initial architecture design describes an HTML5 interface served from a Django-based Python web application. The next step is to build some technical prototypes to explore some key technologies and UI prototypes to validate the key high level use cases. This will mark the end of the "inception phase" of the project and next will be the "elaboration phase" when the architecture design will be tested with a working architecture prototype.

Talking of phases, the project plan approximates the Agile Unified Process but with a particularly user-centered flavour. The AUP is kind of an Agile version of the heavyweight Rational Unified Process used in enterprise software development. The AUP is described as being "serial in the large, iterative in the small" and aims to take a lightweight, iterative approach to software development, but with the recognition of distinct phases of the project. I've chosen to experiment with this methodology to try and get the best out of both user-centered design and agile development. If it doesn't work, I'll switch to something else!

If you want to get involved in the Webian project then sign up to the mailing list and introduce yourself!

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OStatus: Real-time Distributed Social Networking

2010-06-02 08:59 (UTC)

The current popular breed of social networking services are closed networks which don't connect with each other. If a user from one network wants to connect with a user on another network, they generally have to sign up for an account with the second network. This inconvenience ultimately results in a few very large networks with an inordinate amount of control over peoples' most personal data and a lack of choice and privacy for users.



Current Social Networking Services
In 2007 I wrote about an idea for building a distributed social network using a collection of existing open standards. The idea was to allow for social networking functionality equivalent to services like Facebook, but in a more open way where users can choose their provider or host their own data, but still connect with each other. The result would be a "network of networks" connecting to each other with open standards and ultimately much more control and choice for the end user.
Distributed Social Networking

Things have moved on a little since 2007 and a new collection of protocols has now emerged to allow near real time publishing of "activity streams" which can be discovered and commented upon within a social graph in an open, distributed way. You can think of this as a Facebook news feed, but without Facebook. Users will be able to choose from a whole range of different social networking services (or even run their own), and connect with their friends on different networks. Your news feed can then aggregate information from all of the people you're following across a range of different networks, update you about what's going on in near real time and allow you to send a response from your network to theirs.

OStatus is a collective name given to a suite of existing protocols which make this possible. They include:


The OStatus standardisation process is just getting started to define how these existing protocols can work together, but sites like Google Buzz, StatusNet,, and Tumblr are already implementing some or all of the protocols.

There are lots of projects which are working on the idea of distributed social networking. One which has attracted a lot of attention in the press recently is Diaspora which was recently started by a group of four students from New York University thanks to funds raised with an online campaign. The Diaspora team hasn't released any code yet, but they have committed to supporting OStatus. There are many other similar projects, including but not limited to:

Hopefully OStatus and some or all of these projects can do for social networking what SMTP & Sendmail did for email, what HTTP/HTML and Apache did for document sharing and what RSS/Atom and WordPress did for blogging. If just some of these projects choose to support the OStatus group of protocols (some of them already have), then the social web will be a much more open place!

See and a presentation by Even Prodromou for more information.

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Introducing Webian – Home Social Media Server

2010-05-30 12:54 (UTC)

[Reposted from]

Hello, World! I'm Ben and I'd like to introduce you to the Webian project.

Desktop to Web

You may have noticed that there's a growing trend of web applications replacing desktop applications, a mass migration from the "desktop" to the "cloud". Web applications are great because you can access them from anywhere, on any web-enabled device and their networked nature means they can be more connected and social than their desktop counterparts.

Innovations in new devices like smartphones, tablets, netbooks and set-top boxes are providing us with exciting new ways of using the web, without needing to use a desktop PC.



A New Kind of Web

All of this innovation is building momentum around a new standard called HTML5 which is going to transform the web as we know it. Web applications of the future will be richer, more graphical, more interactive, will include high quality audio and video and may even work if you don't have an Internet connection. In other words, they'll have all the power of desktop applications but with all the benefits of the web.




Host Your Own Data

At home I have a collection of documents, images, audio and video measuring in the terabytes. No commercial service will currently host this amount of data online for me at a reasonable cost and even if it would, I'm not sure I'd want to use it. I like the idea of having full control over my own data and I can store it pretty cheaply myself. However, I would like to be able to access my data from anywhere on any device, and enjoy the kind of user experience provided by the new breed of HTML5 web applications.

The great thing about the web is that it's so open. You don't have to be a large corporation or pay a license fee to host a web server, anyone can do it themselves using free software and a domestic broadband connection. However, it does currently require quite a lot of technical know-how and there aren't a huge number of useful web applications you can install yourself that the average web user might want to use.

Let's Make the Home Server Awesome

I've been running a Linux-based web server from my home since 2003 to allow me to access all of my data online, but really it's little more than a glorified file server. I'm starting the Webian project to build an open source social media server for your home with a rich HTML5 web interface. I want Webian to make it easy to access all of your media online from a range of devices like phones, tablets, netbooks and your TV.

I can't do this on my own. I need your help to design the best solution to this problem, make a great job of building it and then promote it so that everyone can benefit. If you share my vision, or you're just interested in hosting your own data online, visit today to learn more about this project and find out how you can participate.

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Announcing Angora Public Beta – Online Collaboration

2010-05-27 12:31 (UTC)

For about the last 10 months I've been working on a new web-based collaboration platform from Rabbitsoft, codenamed Angora.

Angora provides online workspaces where you can collaborate with other people to create and share content, manage tasks and organise events.

Features include:

With Angora you can create a workspace for a project or shared area of interest and invite people to join you online. You can then collaboritively author and track versions of online pages which you can publish to the web. You can assign tasks to people and invite them to events. You can keep up to date with your friends or colleagues by posting regular status updates and you can search entire workspaces including the contents of files. You also get a personal dashboard where you can keep track of all of your workspaces from one place, with a unified activity feed and a list of your upcoming events and tasks.

We've recently launched a public beta of the product at which I'd encourage you to try out. We'd love to hear your feedback and you can report any problems, comments or suggestions using a big blue "Feedback" button at the top of the screen.

Angora is an enterprise class web application built on J2EE, the Spring Framework and Jackrabbit content repository. We're committed to supporting open standards so that you can easily integrate it with your existing systems, we already support RSS, iCalendar and JSR-283.

I'd also personally love to know whether you're finding Angora useful so please, get in touch.

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Google TV

2010-05-25 14:05 (UTC)

At their annual I/O developers event last week, Google announced "Google TV", an open platform for TV-related devices based on their Android mobile OS and Chrome browser.

Many people have tried in the past to combine the web and TV experiences, but none have been hugely successful. Google claims that the reason Google TV will succeed is that unlike previous efforts, they are not trying to re-create the web for the TV, they want to bring the existing web to the TV. They're also working with an impressive array of partners including Sony, Intel, Logitech and Bestbuy.

Google TV consists of a hardware specification and a software platform. The hardware specification includes Wifi & Ethernet for broadband Internet access, HDMI to connect to an existing set-top box and an Infra-red transceiver for remote control. Also included is an Intel Atom processor, a dedicated DSP for high definition audio & surround sound and a GPU which can handle advanced 2D & 3D graphics. Input devices will all include a keyboard and pointing device to enable web page navigation and can use an IP-based remote control protocol to communicate with the Google TV device. Also mentioned was an IP protocol to communicate with cable/satellite/terrestrial set-top boxes for integrations such as retrieving TV listings and setting a recording schedule.

The first Google TV devices will include a TV from Sony and a set-top box from Logitech and will be available in the Autumn.

The software platform is based on Google's Android mobile OS with their Chrome web browser and Adobe Flash. Existing android apps should already run on Google TV as long as they don't rely on any missing hardware or software and a full SDK will be available in early 2011. As well as Android apps, the device will run HTML5 apps over the web. Any web application should work but guidelines have already been issued for optimising web apps for the TV form factor. Web APIs will be issued along with the Android SDK early next year and will probably include standard ways to control web apps from the Google TV input devices. You will be able to control the first Google TV devices from Android phones and install apps from another web-connected device.

Google hopes to open source all of the software through the Android and Chrome projects by summer 2011.

My initial impressions of Google TV are that on its own it isn't anything hugely innovative, similar things have been done before. But with a powerful hardware stack, a proven open software platform and some big brands behind it, Google TV could finally be the platform which successfully merges the web and TV and enables a new generation of innovative services. If HTML5 lives up to its promise then native Android apps one day be redundant as HTML5 matures and provides an equivalent user experience in a more open way.

With HTML5 support building on netbooks, smartphones, tablets and now TVs & set-top boxes I'm excited about the potential of future web applications on this new range of form factors. I think that in a couple of years time the web is going to be even more graphical, even more interactive and even more ubiquitous than ever before and the desktop PC will no longer be the primary means of accessing online content.

Are you ready for the web on your TV?

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Sponsored walk for Bowel Cancer UK – please donate

2010-04-16 12:56 (UTC)

Bowel cancer is not something a lot of people like to think about, but unfortunately for some people it's something very real they have to deal with.

That was the case for my girlfriend Laura's dad this year who was diagnosed by chance after a routine checkup with his doctor. Bob was lucky because they caught the cancer early and it has now been fully treated. He still has a long road to full recovery after the operation but he's on the mend.

In support of Bob, to raise awareness about bowel cancer and to provide practical support and advice for other people in the same situation, Laura and I are walking the 5km "Bringing up the rear!" sponsored walk in just over a week's time. this walk has been organised by Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (Bob was treated by the fantastic staff at Peterborough hospital) and will raise money for Bowel Cancer UK.

If you live in the Peterborough area and you're free on Sunday 25th April then you've still got time to join us on this walk, but if not then we'd be extremely grateful if you could make a donation via our JustGiving web page. This web site makes it quick and easy for you to donate, allows you to automatically claim gift aid on your donation and have 100% of your donation sent to the charity.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and please, donate now with whatever you can afford.


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The iPad is Awesome, but the Web Can Do Better

2010-01-29 10:36 (UTC)

Journalists and bloggers seem divided when it comes to Apple's recently announced "iPad". Some seem disappointed that after all the hype leading up to the launch of the so-called "Jesus Tablet" it didn't turn out to be an event akin to the coming of the Messiah! Many have passed it off as just "an oversized iPod touch" or "a laptop without a keyboard" or highlighted its shortcomings such as a lack of multi-tasking and Adobe Flash support. On the other side of the fence loyal followers of the Cult of Apple are quick to evangelise the product, hailing the beginning of a new era.

Now that the dust has settled a little I'd like to take my seat on the fence between these two camps and share some opinions about what I think is great about the iPad and ultimately what I'd like to see replace it.

Beautiful Hardware

The first thing you might notice about the iPad is that it demonstrates exactly the kind of minimalist design and engineering excellence we've come to expect from Apple products. This beautiful device is thin and light and is made from an aluminium unibody case and high quality glass multi-touch screen. Apple has developed its own custom components like the ARM-based "A4" CPU and a lithium-polymer battery to squeeze out every last drop of performance and battery life.

Intuitive Software

Something I find very interesting is the way in which Apple has re-designed the user interface of practically its entire Mac software suite to be better suited to this new form factor. Photos are presented in stacks which can be exploded with a pinching action, eBooks are stored in a bookcase and can have their pages turned with a natural dragging action and the address book is presented as an actual book. The user interface uses real world objects as design metaphors much more successfully than we've seen before.

The incredibly tactile nature of this new mode of interaction certainly makes for impressive demos and initial reactions from people who have used the device indicate it's just as impressive to use in real life. For the first time it's really feasible to reach out and touch your media directly on the screen rather than being separated from it by a perpendicular plane of interaction on your desktop or laptop keyboard and pointing device.

If nothing else, I think the iPad is going to change how we think about user interface design. Apple's UX design guidelines for the iPad talk about styling UI components to be an integral part of the graphical design of software to make them less conspicuous and more of an integral part of the "physical dimension" of the application. They also discourage modality and full-screen transitions, suggesting designers flatten their "information hierarchy".

Appliance, not Desktop

Of course tablet PCs have been around for many years, but the iPad really comes across as more of a versatile information appliance than a desktop PC. Microsoft tried to adapt their desktop environment to the tablet PC, but Apple has instead started from the base of the iPhone platform. The iPad is not a desktop computer but a tablet which can be instantly transformed into a wide range of tools for different types of information or task. User interfaces are not composed of "windows" of conventional UI elements like menus and buttons, they tend to more heavily use design metaphors of real-world objects which directly represent the content or task, with a single tool filling the screen at any one time.

The Ultimate Proprietary

I think the exceptional user experience achieved by Apple is down to the tight vertical integration of proprietary hardware, software and services. Apple makes their own components, develops their own software and delivers apps and content via their own services. They control nearly every part of the chain between the design, implementation and delivery of their products – including the content and apps consumed on them.

The downside of this tightly integrated approach is that it's an incredibly closed environment. If a software developer wants to develop software for the iPad, that software will not run on any device from any other manufacturer and will only be allowed to run on the iPad if Apple approves its inclusion in their own App Store. If a consumer wants to use a service from one of Apple's competitors, they may find that it's not possible because Apple has blocked apps from that provider. In other words, the iPad is ultimate proprietary computer.

If the iPhone is anything to go by, the app store model will be very successful for Apple in the medium term. People will flock to the iPad and its related services because of the superior user experience, and of course because they have Apple's name on them!

Why the Web can do Better

In the longer term lots of devices will inevitably emerge which imitate the iPad, in fact it has already begun. I think companies who attempt to a shoehorn a desktop environment into these devices will meet the same limited success of the Windows tablet PCs of old. However, I think a new breed of tablet devices descended from netbook and nettop form factors will eventually show more success. Mockups have already surfaced which hypothesise what a Google tablet running Chrome OS might look like for example. There will probably be a range of different devices based on a Linux kernel, but ultimately the user won't care what underlying OS they're using.

Emerging web standards like HTML5, SVG and X3D are going to make it possible in future to create web applications with the same kind of experience of Apple's iPad software suite. I think eventually this standards-based world and a Software-as-a-Service model will displace Apple's proprietary app store model. As seamless as they have made the experience, the app store model still fundamentally relies on users downloading and installing software on their local device. If they want to use the same app on three different devices they will have to install three times, and potentially pay three times as well!

Web applications have the advantage that they can be used from any web-enabled device and developers only need to write once, run anywhere. With the offline capabilities of HTML5 applications will work offline without needing to be installed and data will seamlessly be synced between the local device and the cloud.


In conclusion then, the iPad is an awesome device even if it is only a evolution rather than a revolution. In part due to Steve Jobs' "reality distortion field" and the preaching of the Cult of Apple, the iPad could be as successful as the iPod and the iPhone have been. Lagging behind their competitors in terms of raw features never hurt either of these devices, and with the apparent exceptional user experience of the iPad it's reasonable to think the same will be true of this latest addition to Apple's product line. New versions of the iPad will probably fill in these gaps anyway, once it becomes feasible to pack extra hardware in whilst retaining the low price point.

Once currently emerging web standards become widely supported and web application developers catch on to this new style of UI design, web applications may displace the app store model currently used by Apple. At this point the tablet computer itself could become more of a commodity, turning into a web client rather than a platform for local applications.

I look forward to a time when the web can provide an experience as rich and intuitive as Apple has made the iPad.

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Chrome OS Overview – new details emerge

2009-11-20 13:42 (UTC)

In a previous blog post I mentioned Chrome OS, Google's lightweight operating system. Yesterday Google held a press event where they announced the open-sourcing of Chrome OS as the Chromium OS project and released more details about the features and design of the software. Whilst consumer products running the OS won't be available for another year, the source code is available for developers to download and all development from now on will happen in the open. Design documents and UI "experiments" are also already available online.

The product manager Sundar Pichai identified trends in computing which Chrome OS is designed to address. These include the move from laptops and phones to netbooks and tablets and the move of software into the "cloud". A marketing video stated that Chrome OS is an operating system designed for the age of the Internet and explained the software at a high level. In Chrome OS every application is a web application and all of the user's data is stored in the cloud with local storage merely acting as an offline cache.

New Web Standards & Extensions

The focus of Chrome OS is said to be on speed, simplicity and security.

The OS will implement emerging HTML5 APIs which will give web applications direct access to hardware for accelerated 3D graphics, audio/video, processor multithreading and local storage as well as providing standard user notifications. These APIs hold the promise of much more powerful web applications which can really take advantage of device hardware to deliver the kind of rich multimedia experience currently limited to desktop apps.

Developers will be able to create extensions for the OS which use web technologies and take advantage of automatic updates.


The aim is that using Chrome OS devices should feel more like using a TV than using a computer. A demo of the OS running on an off-the-shelf Eee PC booted to a login screen in 7 seconds and the aim is to bring this boot time down even further.

One contributing factor to this speed is that all Chrome OS devices will boot from SSD (solid state storage) rather than a hard disk. Also because the OS doesn't run local applications it doesn't need to load all the background services a desktop operating system would require.


One of the proposed UI designs for Chrome OS (there are several slightly different possibilities) reduces the "chrome" down to a single bar of interface elements. This includes tabs, special "pinned" application tabs, a menu containing search and web application shortcuts, a combined web search and address bar and icons you'd expect such as wireless network signal, battery and clock.

There are no floating, overlapping, re-sizeable 2.5-dimensional windows like most desktop UIs. Instead you can view multiple web resources at a time with a split screen and "panels" allow you to multi-task by running a music player or chat application in a "lightweight window" which is docked to the bottom of the screen.

Tabs are grouped into windows which resemble workspaces from Mac and Linux desktop environments. An overview mode shows all the open windows and thumbnails of the tabs opened in those windows.


The fact that users don't install binaries on Chrome OS means that quite a unique security model is possible. Unlike a desktop OS every application is treated as un-trusted and runs within a sandbox. In fact the security model is so paranoid that Chrome OS doesn't even trust itself. Every part of the OS – the firmware, kernel and root filesystem is cryptographically signed and is verified every time the device boots. If a single bit is out of place the system is re-imaged from an up to date version online.

For extra protection the root partition is kept completely separate from user storage and is set to read-only. This gives an extra layer of protection to ensure no web application can modify local system files or change settings. The user partition is fully encrypted and all user data is synced to the cloud so local storage is really just an offline cache

Automatic updates do not require user intervention so the system is guaranteed to always have the latest security patches.


No Chrome OS devices are due for another year, but Google has already announced that it's "working with a number of technology companies to design and build devices that deliver an extraordinary end user experience" This includes Acer, Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Toshiba and others.

To achieve the speed and reliability they want, Google is working closely with hardware companies to tightly couple their software with hardware, even going as far as to specifiy individual components OEM devices should contain. All devices will use SSD rather than hard disks.

How Open is Open?

Chrome OS is a fully open source operating system which heavily promotes open web standards. All development is going to happen in public and contributions are welcomed from the open source community. But just how open is the software in reality?

The Register has a characteristically negative take on Chrome OS. They accuse Google of creating "another monoculture", drawing comparisons with Apple's proprietary approach to tightly coupling the entire vertical stack of hardware, software and services.

There are strong technical arguments for this tight integration. Mac OS X demonstrates the kind of performance and reliability that can be achieved when the software developers only have one hardware platform to worry about. Microsoft's Windows and desktop GNU/Linux distributions have to maintain drivers for a huge range of hardware and architectures which can result in patchy peformance and ultimately a frustrating experience for the end user. By locking down Chrome OS to specific devices in a similar way to Android phones, Google neatly sidesteps this issue.

The tight integration of hardware, firmware and software is also what enables Google's innovative security model. Google has control over every byte of software on the device and can therefore guarantee its integrity.

Technical arguments aside, this tight integration doesn't really contribute to the "open" image. Although Chrome OS is open source, all code contributions naturally have to be accepted by Google employees. In addition to this, Google has stated that consumers won't be able to just download Chrome OS and run it on any machine, they will have to by a Google-approved Chrome OS device from one of its partners.

There are clear advantages for users when their data is synced to the cloud, but it also requires the user to let go of a certain amount of control over their data. There's something re-assuring about local storage you have physical control over.

Open Source licenses guarantee the liberty of software with licenses which perpetuate openness of the source code. But this model fundamentally relies on the fact that any project can theoretically be "forked" if the original supplier disappears, takes the software in a direction not favoured by the community or turns "evil". It's questionable whether any group of people other than Google would have the resources to effectively fork Chrome OS. The vertical integration and dependence on update servers would require a huge amount of infrastructure for any potential fork.

Closing Comments

Chrome OS truly is a fundamental paradigm shift in computing and is another genuinely innovative product from the innovation powerhouse that is Google. The company is keen to push the "open" aspects to the software and they don't yet seem to have an intended revenue model for the product.

In my view Chrome OS is an invevitable evolution in computing as a result of the success of the World Wide Web and one I've been anticipating for about five years. Although I didn't think of even half the clever and innovative features packed into this announcement, I am surprised it's taken this long for a browser-based OS to emerge. If Google delivers on all of its promises for Chrome OS then it will have been well worth the wait.

I applaud Google's open approach, their brave "web apps only" system and bold design decisions. However, I am also quietly cautious about just how open a vertically integrated system such as this can really be. For many of the open source hackers who lovingly created the very software Chrome OS itself is built on, this new approach to software will be a hard pill to swallow due to the control they are losing over their own computer systems by buying into this new paradigm.

Chrome OS is simultaneously a massive boost for open technologies on the web and the birth of a new class of proprietary computer system.

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