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Chrome OS, litl, and OLPC
cananian
Well, Google just announced Chrome OS, to be available next Christmas. Some parts of it are very similar to what you can already put under the tree this Christmas from litl (actually, you can buy one right now) — and other parts are familiar from my time at OLPC. For example, the legacy-free BIOS and signed bootloader are what OLPC shipped two years ago on the XO-1. The XO-1 was not an "always connected" device, though — in fact the opposite: it assumed connectivity was infrequent and low-bandwidth. At OLPC, the signed code scheme was part of an theft-deterrence system, crucial for OLPC's target third-world deployments. It wasn't very popular among our first-world users, and I'm not actually sure why Google implemented it for Chrome OS. Phone company lock-in (due to largely misplaced concerns about maintaining the integrity of their networks) are why phone apps are locked down with signature schemes; this isn't necessary (and verges on Evil) for what's intended as a general-purpose computing device.

The somewhat oddly-technical (and often slightly-wrong) middle section of the Chrome OS presentation veered off at one point about filesystem partitions (!) and how having a read-only partition is a novel feature of their OS. Read-only partitions are one of the oldest security mechanisms — my boot floppy had the write-protect notch taped over back when I was booting DOS — and a near-universal feature of thin-client deployments (which Chrome OS certainly is). OLPC maintained a mostly-read-only root, but primarily to extend the lifetime of the flash disk (flash lifetime was not touched on in the Chrome OS presentation). Litl mounts a read-only root with a writable unionfs on top, which actually works much better in practice: improved maintainability because all the various Linux system daemons can still "do their thing" as they expect, but you can wipe the top partition whenever you like to return to a clean state (at litl we do this on every update). (If you haven't hacked the lower levels of a Linux distribution, you'd probably be surprised at how many system daemons assume they can write various places in the root partition, and you really don't want to maintain hacked versions of all of them.) Since ChromeOS gave an Ubuntu shout-out at one point, I strongly suspect the unionfs scheme is actually what they are doing as well — and, for that matter, what all the other Ubuntu Mobile downstreams are doing. Not new.

The emphasis on a read-only root partition is rather misleading from a security standpoint (as much of the middle portion of the presentation was). If you're not storing your files locally, it doesn't mean that you suddenly have no security concerns. It just means you have different security concerns. Cross-site scripting attacks give a malicious website access to your Google account through your web browser: these sorts of things are the malware for a WebOS. You have a different attack surface, but a vulnerability in your browser or flash plugin still gives access to private data. Mentioning that they encrypt the data on disk seems to be pure snake oil: your browser has access to the unencrypted data, and that's your most vulnerable surface anyway.

Overall, Chrome OS is a nice validation of some of the cloud-computing ideas we've been working on at litl, and it's always nice to see more legacy-free hardware (like the OLPC XO-1 and the litl webbook), but the presentation was oddly underwhelming. They're not really "reimagining the PC" — they're just removing all the applications on the PC except for Chrome. You still interact with "the PC" the same way you currently interact with Chrome. For reimagination, watch the videos at litl.


It is the scale that is revolutionary

renaissancegk.wordpress.com

2009-11-22 07:20 pm (UTC)

It is the scale of what Google is trying to do that is quite revolutionary. Getting compatible hardware, apps, instant-boot, none of this is new but putting it all together is. I am excited that google isn't trying to cram 'too many miracles' into this product, to borrow from Kim Quirk.

I am particularly excited that Google is looking to standardize the API's for access to hardware and other features. Sergey Brin said during the chromeOS introduction that Google will be working w/ W3C to standardize the notifications api together w/ the W3C.