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Google has shown off its Chrome OS, the operating system that will power a new range of notebooks - but says its launch will be delayed until "mid-2011" with no indication of price or performance characteristics of machines that will run it.
The idea behind the Chromium OS is that it will coordinate with cloud services, especially Google's, to minimise the amount of local storage required and to allow people to use any Chromium device to access the same cloud-saved data and synchronise locally-stored data to the cloud.
The launch has been delayed because Chrome OS still has too many bugs - 2,227 according to the official page, including "sync is not working" which was the top one at the time of writing.
The huge question is whether Chrome OS will challenge Windows on low-end machines, particularly netbooks. But with the netbook market shrinking as buyers shift towards tablets, there are questions too about whether Chrome OS is too little, too late: Android is doing remarkably well on mobile phones and tablets, while Microsoft has managed to persuade netbook makers to use a low-end version of Windows 7.
Plus Chrome OS will require the user to have regular - though not persistent - connectivity to the internet.
"We think cloud computing will define computing as we know it," said Eric Schmidt, Google's chief operating officer, at the announcement - which falls notably short of a launch. "Finally there is a viable third choice for an operating system."
Some Linux, and particularly Ubuntu fans, might wonder which three he's talking about, given that Windows and Mac OS X are the two OSs you can buy in the shops. Is Schmidt saying Ubuntu isn't viable, or just that you can't get it in the shops?
Then again, Chrome OS is a Linux-based OS, so Linux fans might have cause to like it - the way that Google took Android, another Linux build, from zero to hero in the smartphone market could be seen as a good sign.
Sundar Pichai, Google's head of product for Chrome, said that "This is a profound shift" and that Chrome is an attempt to "re-think the personal experience for the modern web". He told the BBC: "Chrome is nothing but the web."
But rather than launching the OS, as had been expected, yesterday Google announced a "pilot programme" insisting that Chrome OS is "for people who live in the web" and announcing that everyone who takes part will receive a Cr-48 notebook, a new piece of reference hardware for Chrome OS, and will be expected to tell Google how they progress. (You have to be 18 and based in the US - sorry, UK folks.)
Google has put up an image gallery of the Cr-48 - whose black casing and keyboard make it look exactly like one of Apple's "BlackBook" (black MacBook) models from three years ago, though with barely any connectors - I spot a power lead, USB connector, display connector, but no Ethernet jack.
You can take a quiz to see if you live on the web sufficiently for Chrome: apparently most people (possibly most who have taken the quiz) get a 7.5 out ot 10, but it's very easy to game.
There are some intriguing tweaks to the feature set of the devices: notebooks won't include Caps Lock keys ("We expect this will improve the quality of comments across the web" - good luck with that).
In addition the OS will have "verified boot" - meaning that it on startup it will ensure nothing on the machine or its software has been altered, by comparing hashes for the machine and a reference. If they differ, it could indicate malicious meddling - and at that point Chrome OS will alert the user.
The idea is that that will preclude the possibility of viruses or malware infecting programs, or of malicious software being installed on the system without the user's knowledge.
Data residing on the machines will be encrypted by default, at the home directory level. Google says that's for two reasons: so that friends can easily share machines without worrying about whether people can share their data; and to avoid the risk of data loss if you lose the portable device that Chromium runs on. (Of course, that protection will only be as strong as your password.)
This does have its own wrinkles: what if there's a disk error?
"If a user authenticates successfully, but all attempts to create or access an encrypted image fail, then login does not fail. Instead, the user receives an empty home directory that uses tmpfs. This means that all the locally stored data will be inaccessible, but it ensures that even though using an encrypted image wasn't possible, no sensitive user data will end up stored on disk."
Which means you'll have to download it back from the cloud. But in the US Google is going to partner with Verizon to offer data plans, though it will be a contract-free scheme.