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Netbooks running Google's own operating system -- Chrome OS -- rather than Windows, yesterday took a giant step forward as the company released the underlying source code to the developer community.

At a conference in the US, Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product management, announced the lightweight operating system is about a year away from release. He also promised it would ship pre-installed on Chrome OS-optimised netbooks, rather than be provided as a free download for anyone to install on any computer.

The reason is rather Apple-like: Google wants to control the overall experience, and to do that Chrome has been designed only to work with specific pieces of hardware. Specifically, it'll require solid-state, flash-based hard disks, rather than traditional magnetic hard disks. These don't provide the sustained read or write speeds magnetic disks do, but they're much faster at accessing small amounts of data.

As for the bulk of the stuff you'd normally save on your hard drive, these will mostly be stored in the cloud. To get at these files quickly, Google wants Chrome OS netbooks to use speedy 802.11n Wi-Fi chips as well -- another reason for it wanting to have some control over which machines its OS is installed on.

Google demonstrated some of Chrome OS' functionality on a netbook. As we expected, the interface looks almost identical to the Chrome Web browser. All applications are Web apps, and all load as tabs -- just like Web pages do in Chrome today. To put it simply, Chrome OS looks like the Chrome Web browser in full-screen mode.

We still haven't made our minds up on this one. The idea of almost instant-on computing is hugely attractive, and we're massive fans of Google Docs and its related products. But sacrificing local storage for a reliance on access to speedy Wi-Fi (or maybe 3G) makes us uncomfortable. Until we know more, we're far from making any final judgements.

Expect Chrome OS netbooks to be on sale by Christmas 2010. A VMWare image of Chrome OS is available to download here. Check out a couple of extra screenshots over the page.

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This upper left-hand menu contains a list of all programs available to you. Each opens as a Web app in a tab within the main Chrome window.
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These little panels pop up to give access to things like instant messaging, calendars, email notifications and notepads.
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