Google's computer programme: from search engine to operating system
Published 09/12/2010 | 11:07
A relentless torrent of news has poured from Google over the last week.
On Monday the firm announced a phone, made in partnership with Samsung, that it hopes will rival Apple’s iPhone; next it announced the release of its own operating system, which it hopes will in due course come to rival Windows, the software that forms the basis of most computers on the planet.
Today it is back in its heartland of search, revealing the most and least looked for words and phrases online, from people to aspirations.
What is telling however is not Google’s ability to capture a year in review. Of course people were searching “I love football” and “I hate football” in a World Cup year, and of course David Cameron was another top term after the Conservatives formed a Government.
But what’s much more interesting is how these results show that Google is now a part of the furniture. People type in “I feel lonely” or “I love dance”.
More and more people are entering those Google searches into Google’s own browser, Chrome, too.
This week the company announced that 120 million people are using the stripped down browser that has set a trend that others such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer have also followed.
This time last year, just 40 million people were using Chrome, so the growth is extraordinary. Just as Google took over from incumbents such as Yahoo with web search, it could yet discover a similar trajectory for the browser, because switching is comparatively easy.
Far more challenging than that, however, is Google’s new ambition: Chrome OS is an operating system, which means it would form the basis of everything your computer does.
Unsurprisingly for Google, it’s aimed at people who work mostly online. Speed, including booting up in seconds, security and simplicity are the key features.
Indeed, it’s because of the growth of the internet, itself catalysed by Google, that Chrome has come about.
More and more applications are now web-based: so email, word processing, music and presentations all happen online.
Google’s new phone, for instance, includes a feature called “listen to”. So say “Listen to Kylie Minogue” and it will go to the web, find what tracks you can access and start playing them.
This is very different from previous models where users who wanted to listen to music needed to download specific songs, install programmes to play it and organise their libraries.
Now, on the phone or in a browser very “thin” software is required, because the web does all the work. It’s a long way from just a few years ago when, say, installing Microsoft Office meant using countless floppy disks.
Brian Rakowski, Google’s director of product development, says, “We launched Chrome because many of us were spending all day in the browser and the browsers weren’t quite up to the task. We wanted them to be simpler, speedier and more secure. Now we’re seeing that a lot of people who are just living in the browser don’t need all the other features in an operating system.”
Sundar Pichai, Google’s vice-president of product management, adds that the approach is genuinely novel compared to how an operating system such as Windows currently works.
“The model is fundamentally different because it’s a whole different approach to security. With other operating systems, users have to maintain their applications, protect their data and so on.”
Pichai says that with Chrome OS, there’s only really one application, Chrome itself, and therefore everything else is online.
If that approach meets users’ needs, it could almost spell the end for computer viruses, because the prospect of downloading anything would become a thing of the past.
Chrome OS also uses a clever technique that means it verifies everything is as it should be every time it starts up. And because Chrome OS is so thin itself, it’s very quick.
Such speed and security means it will allow Google to continue to push into business uses, too.
Not everyone is convinced of this plan: Ovum analyst Mike Davis says “Will these workers want Chrome OS on a device such as netbook? No they will want a tablet. Whether Google likes it or not, its former 'partner’ Apple has all of the current mind share on web connected devices with its iPad tablet, and it will have a second version of the iPad with an updated version of its own iOS before Chrome is officially released to the world in the second half of 2011.”
Indeed, Google’s current plan is to test a version of Chrome OS in limited markets on a bespoke laptop. Frequent updates will iron out issues with what is currently unfinished software.
So Chrome is currently a long way from challenging Microsoft. But Google’s agenda is clear.
As Pichai says, “Google has direct benefits when more people use the web; when people use Chrome and Chome OS we see a direct rise in revenue.”
Internet searches are what the company is all about; whether it is making phones, laptops or tablet computers, getting more people online is the one ambition. Users pay for it by clicking on adverts.