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Google Chrome OS: unlike Android, it's open source

The code's already there. If anyone wants it

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Unlike Android, Google Chrome OS is open source.

Whereas Android is coded behind closed doors — one big-name developer says it's no more open than Apple's iOS — Google's imminent browser-based operating system is built — in large part — where everyone can see it. A portion of the project remains closed — Google's boot-time-boosting firmware work — but like the browser it's based on, Chrome OS is a platform that can serve Google's ad-centric purposes even if its code is set completely free.

According to the man who's closer to the project than anyone outside of Google and its various hardware partners, Chrome OS will offer few surprises when it is officially released, likely before the end of the month. When we spoke to Liam McLoughlin this summer, he assumed the company was crafting certain tools outside the public Chromium OS code tree — Android-style — but in recent weeks, the man known as "Hexxeh" has come to see things a bit differently.

"I'm less sure about Google keeping features out of view now," he tells The Reg. "After having talked to a few people working on it, it seems that the parallels I drew to Android, where things are developed out of the public view, are incorrect. There may be some, but I don't think it's intentional if we haven't seen them yet."

McLoughlin — a college student in the UK — has been the main source for Chromium OS build releases ever since Google first unveiled its public code tree in November of last year. There's always the chance his assessment of Google's plans is off the mark, but it's clear he has developed a reasonably close relationship with the Google development team, and there's no denying Chrome OS was set up quite differently from Android — not to mention the new Google TV platform. Android code wasn't open-sourced until the first Android phones were released, and although Google TVs are now on in stores, the company says it won't open source the code until sometime next year.

Chrome OS app menu

Chrome OS (click to enlarge)

Where open source is concerned, Chrome OS is analogous to, well, Chrome. Google's Chrome desktop browser is developed in plain view — Mozilla-style — through the open source Chromium project. And though we questioned Google's intentions when it launched the, yes, Chromium OS project last fall, this open source effort appears to follow the same model. Over the past year, Google's development team has regularly updated the project with new code, and though some Chromium OS watchers have wondered whether there's a shadow code tree somewhere deep into the Mountain View Chocolate Factory, many more with whom we've spoken are confident that what you see with the Chromium OS project is what you'll get with the official Chrome OS release.

Things are different with Android and Google TV. In both cases, Google is looking to extend its dominance beyond today's web. On phones and televisions, the web isn't the focal point it is on the desktop or the network. With Android and Google TV, Mountain View is compelled to control the platform outside the browser. That's the only way it can ensure that its online services win the day. But with Chrome OS, there is no platform beyond the browser. Chrome OS only runs apps on the web, and on the web, Google is already dominant.

Google can (truly) open source Chrome OS because it in no way harms the company to do so — and it may help. If someone is using a machine that runs nothing but web apps, Google is undoubtedly pleased — whether it has a hand in building that machine or not.

The question is how many people really want a machine that runs nothing but web apps.

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