Jeff Nelson, who began working for Google back in 2006, has shared a very interesting bit of history about a project that he worked on in his early days with the company: Google OS. His work eventually evolved into Chrome OS and spawned the Chromebook , but at the time Nelson’s web-based operating system was built around Firefox.
Google hadn’t yet started working on Chrome — the first public release didn’t happen for nearly two more years. But Nelson was already spending the bulk of his day working on web apps inside a browser, and he was looking for a way to claw back some of the development time he lost every day by traditional operating system inefficiencies.
Nelson spent a lot of time closing and opening his browsers and clearing cache files. He found himself throwing precious minutes away waiting for those operations to complete, and figured there had to be a better option. Nelson began hacking away at Google OS.
Its beginnings sound a lot like Webconverger or xPud — with little more than Firefox sitting atop a stripped-down Linux base. Nelson’s goal wasn’t to build a web-first OS at the time. He wanted something super-fast to do his development on, and he started out by loading the entire OS into RAM. That immediately took care of most of his file system bottleneck issues.
Relying on RAM for storage means you don’t have a lot of room for software bloat, and Nelson had to rely on web apps and keep local installs to a minimum. His work was continually autosaved to networked and local storage to prevent data loss, and for years Nelson worked on Google OS running entirely in RAM.
Initial reactions to Nelson’s OS were tepid at best, but as it became increasingly clear that web apps really could provide a complete computing experience, Google started pursuing the idea of a browser-based operating system. In 2009, Chrome OS was finally announced and then released on the Cr-48 the following year.
In its present form, Chrome OS doesn’t quite deliver the kind of speediness Nelson would have enjoyed in his RAM disk setup. Maybe the next generation of Chromebooks will offer a bit more giddyup.
Update: Several current Google employees have come forward to question Nelson’s claims. At this point it seems more likely that his work was a 20% project that happened to utilize a lightweight OS that ran a browser, and not the inspiration for Chrome OS itself.