Michael Horowitz

Why Chrome OS should have fewer bugs than other operating systems

March 12, 2014 7:05 PM EDT
In my last blog I wrote that owning a Chromebook is revolutionary because it imposes no errands on the end user. Turn it on, use it, turn it off, get on with the rest of your life. And, Chromebooks do this while still offering excellent security for traveling and for running Flash.
 
Here I offer another Defensive Computing aspect to Chrome OS (the operating system on both Chromebooks and Chromeboxes): it should have fewer bugs than competing operating systems. 
 
I don't say this because Google (which created and maintains Chrome OS) necessarily employs better programmers than Microsoft or Apple. I say it because of the way they maintain the operating system. 
 
Microsoft and Apple do big bangs. That is, they release drastically revised versions of Windows, OS X and iOS every few years. Customers are encouraged to upgrade to the latest and greatest version, both by touting new features (carrot) and by discontinuing bug fixes for older systems (stick). 
 
It has always been this way. But why?  
 
Certainly profit plays a big part. Operating system upgrades sell both hardware and software.
 
But the big Defensive Computing issue has to do with software flaws.
 
As sure as the sun will come up in the morning, a new version of an operating system will introduce a huge number of new bugs.
 
And it takes years for many of these bugs to get fixed. Roughly four years after they were released both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6) still need to be patched. Heck, no one doubts that Windows XP remains buggy more than 12 years after it was released. Twelve years!
 
It doesn't have to be this way. While the universe may have started with a big bang, updates to operating systems don't have to work that way. 
 
Chrome OS does not work that way. 
 
Google updates Chrome OS piecemeal. Instead of a big massive re-write every few years, the system is continually and frequently updated. Each update adds just a little. Rather than a big bang, the system changes slowly. 
 
Chromebook owners may not notice the changes on a day to day basis, but they add up. Back in June of 2012 fellow Computerworld blogger JR Raphael wrote that "Chrome OS has come a long way since its launch 17 months ago". And just last month Kevin Tofel of Gigaom noted that "It’s been more than a year since I shared a batch of tips and tricks for Google Chromebooks, and much has changed in Chrome OS since then and now"
 
Without a big bang, there is no flood of new bugs
 
Small software updates are less likely to introduce new problems. All things being equal, Chrome OS should be less buggy that other operating systems simply because of how the system is maintained. 
 
Google's Incremental updates also don't create orphans. 
 
The iPad that I purchased in June 2013 in now orphaned because it runs iOS 6, which Apple has abandoned. Yes, I can upgrade, but iOS 7 is ugly, a drastic user interface change and still being patched frequently (the inevitable flood of new bugs). Windows XP users will soon be orphans, but Microsoft offered them a good long run (they had to because of Vista). Snow Leopard users were just orphaned after roughly 4 years and weren't even told about it. 
 
Since Chrome OS devices first came to market there has been no forced migration to a newer version of the system software. There are no Chrome OS version 19 users hung out to dry because their Chromebooks are not getting bug fixes any more.
 
Instead, Chromebook users have the luxury of remaining blissfully ignorant of the version of the operating system running their computers. Heresy.
 
Of course, even a more reliable system won't be perfect, but Google has that covered too. 
 
A Chromebook user can easily report problems back to the mother ship. From the Chrome browser, clicking on the three horizontal lines in the top right corner, pops up a menu that includes an option to "Report an issue..." Selecting that results in the form shown below.  
 
 
Should a bug affect many Chromebook users, Google is very likely to hear about it, which raises the odds that the bug will get fixed. Finding the problem should be relatively easy, since little new code is rolled out with each update. And, since Google is not married to any particular schedule for releasing patches, they can roll out the fix when it's ready. 
 
From a Defensive Computing perspective, Chrome OS is hard to beat. 
 

 
Update March 12, 2014: A reader below (thanks David) mentioned something that I left out. Another reason for Chrome OS to have fewer bugs is that new versions of the system are always being publicly tested.
 
Google lets Chromebook users chose if they want to run the stable version of the system (which of course is the default) or not. Those that like to see the latest features as soon as possible, and those willing to take the risk, can chose to run either the beta (slightly buggy) or developer (very buggy) edition of Chrome OS. This results in more people testing the software before it's released to the general public, which should result in fewer bugs. Again, this is a constant thing.
 
Microsoft offers public betas of Windows, but only when a new version of the system is close to being complete. Once the new version is released, there is no more public testing of any further changes.
 
I don't know how Apple handles public beta testing of OS X and iOS. We have seen from the Goto fail bug that their internal testing leaves something to be desired.