Rumors have abounded over the years about a Google operating system, perhaps based on the Ubuntu version of Linux widely used within the company, but on Monday the company revealed an open-source project that provides a different answer to the same problem: Native Client.
The reason I've been skeptical about Google releasing an operating system of its own is that the company has such a Web-based view of the world. But Web apps have limits, impressive gains of Google Docs notwithstanding, and Native Client is geared to address those.
"At Google we're always trying to make the Web a better platform. That's why we're working on Native Client, a technology that aims to give Web developers access to the full power of the client's CPU while maintaining the browser neutrality, OS portability and safety that people expect from Web applications," said Brad Chen of Google's Native Client team in a blog posting.
Google has a three-lobed mission: search, ads, and apps. It does well on the first two, but Web-based applications remain rough for most users. Native Client could change that if Google develops the project to maturity, convinces people to install it, and convinces programmers to write for it.
The software plug-in works in conjunction with various Web browsers but lets Web-based applications take advantage of a computer's significant processing horsepower. That puts it in a similar camp as Sun Microsystems' Java, Microsoft's Silverlight, and Adobe Systems' Flash, which, like Native Client, include a "runtime" foundation for running the software.
Although Native Client is just a research project at this stage, the move could have powerful long-term consequences for the battle to create the most compelling foundation for Web-based applications. The technology philosophically meshes with Adobe's hybrid philosophy of running applications both on servers and PCs.
So far, Native Client works on Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Chrome on any modern system with an x86 processor running Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, Google said.