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Will Google's Online Operating System Revolutionize the Computer?

Google OS Screenshot

The upcoming Google Chrome OS hates hard drives and runs circles around Windows and Macintosh boot times.Google

That big old hard drive in your computer? Google says you don’t need it anymore. The company is also betting you won't need that Windows, Macintosh or Linux stuff either. No, Google wants you to access, operate, and edit all your files on the Internet.

To help with that, the company has developed a lightweight operating system of its own, the first new competition for Windows and Macs in years. It's called Chrome OS. And it could have a profound effect on the way we work with computers. 

You won't be able to put it on your current PC. But Google wants it to power your NEXT computer. 

And because it's based almost entirely on the Internet, Chrome is smart and superfast. No more “Where did I save that file?” No more computer slowdowns. No more crashes?

“Today’s operating systems were designed in an era where there was no web,” Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya told FoxNews.com. “Google Chrome OS is designed for people who spend most of their time on the web. It’s our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be."

What does that entail? Speed, simplicity and security, Bencuya said. For example, there's one key change that's completely invisible -- but you'll spot it almost instantly. The Windows and Macintosh operating systems load everything first, which hogs precious memory, even if a browser is all you use. Bencuya calls this approach “decades old.” 

Chrome OS assumes you’re always in your browser -- which is the access point for most of your files anyway, right? Web pages, e-mails, documents on Google Docs, photos stored at Flickr, video chats, streaming music from Pandora ... most of what you do is online, isn't it? Skip the traditional desktop and save time, simplicity and memory, Google argues. And because it doesn’t load a bunch of background stuff, Chrome OS boots almost instantly. Early demos Google showed me reveal Chrome OS booting in 7 seconds or less -- significantly faster than the traditional operating systems from Microsoft and Apple.

Google underscored the point in a recent promotional video, in which the Internet giant estimates that the average desktop user spends 90 percent of his time in a browser -- more than enough to justify the use of a web-only desktop.

If Apple or Microsoft are concerned by these stats, they aren't talking. Neither Microsoft nor Apple were immediately available for comment when contacted by FoxNews.com. Maybe with good reason. Clay Wood, chief technology officer at Fogo Data Center (a company that sells computing power through the Internet, much as a power company sells electricity) argued that Google's lightweight system -- actually a return to computing paradigms from the 1960s -- may be the wave of the future. 

“In a way, Chrome OS comes full circle in how we used to access computer files in the '50s and '60s, logging into a centralized mainframe computer (i.e. the Internet) with a dumbed-down computer to do your work,” said Clay Wood, chief technology officer at Fogo Data Center, which sells "cloud" computing as a service.

Google says that the "back to the future" approach provides a significant security advantage. Instead of worrying about what kind of scary viruses might overrun your local computer, Chrome OS leaves security to the people hosting websites and the online applications the operating system uses. 

Google itself hosts several apps, such as g-mail and docs, and the company runs anti-virus programs on its server before letting you view any hosted files. Furthermore, since there’s really no local files to corrupt, your computer stays safe; it’s merely a window to the Internet, after all. 

Even Wood agrees that most PC users already spend a majority of their time online. “If pulled from the network, most computers wouldn’t even be used,” he admits. “Even in many business environments.” Yet a web-only desktop such as Chrome OS is only as good as the Internet apps it has access to. 

“There’s a lot you can do on the cloud, but there’s also a lot you still can’t do,” says Wood, noting a lack of web-based accounting, production and specialty software. Google’s Bencuya argues that robustness and availability is getting better every day. “You’re already seeing a lot of functionality moving to the web, including both video and photo editing,” he told FoxNews.com. “The gap between personal computing and server-side computing is closing.”

Even that won’t put Chrome OS entirely in the clear, though. Support for odd gadgets, compatibility with Microsoft and Apple docs and programs, and offline access present different sets of problems. While Google promises offline access to documents, mp3s, photos and other multimedia files, it’s unclear how much access the operating system will provide. In other words, how dumbed down will it be offline?

“PC enthusiasts will struggle with it,” Woods admits, citing the challenge Google will face from the vast array of headphones, graphics cards, fancy keyboards, microphones, thumb drives and more. “It’ll be interesting to see how Google will handle that,” he said.

Perhaps the company won’t have to. In a very un-Google like move, Google announced that Chrome OS will be available only on newly sold machines -- that means no free downloads from the Internet. So how can you get it -- and how much will it cost? 

"We’ll have more to share before the end of the year," Bencuya told FoxNews.com. But Bencuya refused to say exactly when this year the OS would arrive.

Whenever it does arrive, the real effect of the lightweight Chrome operating system will be felt in how well it catches on with users -- but the concept of a browser-only operating system is eye-opening.

“Ultimately, Chrome OS can already be achieved by staying in your browser 100 percent of the time,” Woods noted. “In that sense, it’s not really doing anything new. It’s just simplifying the experience.”

Blake Snow is a freelance writer and professional Interneter. He lives in Utah with his wife and three kids. Suggestion box and contact information can be found on his website.