Operating systems such as Windows or Mac OS could someday move to the cloud.
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Millions of people use cloud computing without knowing it, by watching videos, sharing photos or using social media — online services such as YouTube, Gmail, Flickr and Facebook all depend on it. But could a cloud operating system become the brains for a new generation of mobile gadgets and household devices?
A cloud-based operating system being developed in Beijing would be the equivalent of running Windows or Mac OS online rather than booting it up from a computer's hard drive. That means just an online connection would be needed to turn any "dumb" device with a very basic computer system into a smart computing device — whether that device is a tablet, a smartphone, a refrigerator, a washing machine or a factory robot.
The Chinese "TransOS" system is being developed by Yaoxue Zhang and Yuezhi Zhou of Tsinghua University. A device using TransOS would need a minimal amount of computer code to start up and connect to the Internet. More details are expected in an upcoming special issue of the International Journal of Cloud Computing.
"The TransOS manages all the networked and virtualized hardware and software resources, including traditional OS, physical and virtualized underlying hardware resources, and enables users [to] select and run any service on demand," Zhang and Zhou said in a statement.
Google has attempted to create a simple operating system for the cloud through its Chrome OS — an online operating system that mostly looks like an Internet browser but also could run a no-frills computer. The Chinese effort is much more ambitious; it would essentially create a virtual version of a fully functional operating system.
A cloud operating system would come with new security concerns. Hackers already have demonstrated that practically anything online can be compromised, whether it's an individual iTunes user account or Sony's PlayStation Network. A second danger is that storing a computer's brains and data online can leave users dependent on the whims of the hosting company ― even of a hypothetical "nanny state" government.
Either way, the idea isn't likely to take off until users can rest assured that their mobile computing devices and smart gadgets won't lose their high-speed Internet connections.