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What the Fuchsia? Google's trying out a mysterious new operating system

The software is designed for "modern phones and modern personal computers," which suggests Google intends to compete against Microsoft's Windows and possibly its own Android.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

Stephen Shankland/CNET

First there was Windows vs. Mac. Then came iOS vs. Android. Now with a project called Fuchsia, Google could be starting a new software platform war -- but we don't yet know who's on the other side of the battle line.

Fuchsia, which emerged Friday, is an operating system designed for "modern phones and modern personal computers," Google says. For those devices, the tech titan already has Android and Chrome OS, raising the possibility that Fuchsia will compete with Google's own work.

It's hard to launch a new mainstream operating system. But with Android, Google became one of the few companies to successfully do so, and the Fuchsia team includes veterans of operating systems including the legendary BeOS. And as Apple showed with iOS on its iPhones, a new operating system can bring dramatic new benefits to consumers.

You may be happy with Windows, Android, MacOS or iOS. But there's still room for improvement. A fresh start in the world of operating systems could mean stronger security, more responsiveness, longer battery life, and an easier time for programmers writing sophisticated apps.

OS hurdles

Building an operating system is technically hard, especially one like Android or Windows that has to handle a wide variety of hardware. And when building a new OS, it's hard to get developers to write software tailored for it -- a key problem that doomed many operating systems, including Windows Phone, Mozilla's Firefox OS, Palm's WebOS and Ubuntu Touch. If people aren't using the software, there's no incentive for developers to support it.

And getting consumers excited about operating systems is tough. "Users really don't want to run operating systems -- they want to run apps," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver.

Google could help a fledgling operating system by making it compatible with Android. But that would also make it harder for Google to make a true fresh start.

Operating systems can also succeed in narrower domains -- anything from network equipment to microwave ovens, for example. And it's not yet clear what Google's Fuchsia ambitions are. The company declined to comment further on Fuchsia.

An operating system manages a device's most basic operations. It registers keyboard clicks, sends data over a network, juggles the tasks running on a processor, stores files on a drive, displays graphics on a screen and controls a phone camera. At the center of the OS is software called a kernel, which in Fuchsia's case is called Magenta.

Android is based on the open-source Linux kernel that has been around since 1991.

Fuchsia is still in its early stages. Google has it up and running on an Acer Switch Alpha 12, a laptop-tablet hybrid, but apparently also wants to get it running on a Raspberry Pi, a much less powerful machine. It also runs on devices powered by ARM chips, the type that powers almost all phones and tablets.

Fuchsia team

Some notable developers are contributing to the project. Among them:

  • Travis Geiselbrecht, who worked on a failed but influential operating system from the 1990s called BeOS, the iPhone and the OS for the Danger Hiptop operating system, which T-Mobile sold as the original Sidekick.
  • Brian Swetland, who worked on BeOS, the Hiptop OS and who spent many years toiling on the core parts of Android.
  • Chris McKillop, a member of the original iPhone team and the original WebOS team who also worked on the QNX operating system used in cars and some BlackBerry devices. He also worked on the Danger Hiptop.
  • Adam Barth, a longtime member of Google's Chrome team who more recently has been working on a Google tool designed called Flutter to make it easier for programmers to write software that runs on Android and iOS. He also built an operating system of his own called Tau.

Fuchsia is an open-source project, meaning anyone can see the underlying programming instructions, modify them and use them for their own purposes. It's hard to sell open-source software the way Microsoft sells Windows or Adobe Systems sells Photoshop, but it's easier to attract outside programmers to contribute an open-source project, and it's more likely the software will be used and improved as a result.

The Fuchsia project is hosted both on Google's own site and on the publicly available Github.