Interview: Chrome OS Zero’s Hexxeh

From Chrome OS Diet to Cherry and now the latest, Zero, Hexxeh has been the primary source for Chrome OS build releases ever since Google released the Chromium code to the masses in November. They’ve been popular mostly because they work with a lot of existing hardware, plus the builds are small enough to fit on any USB drive. We got a chance to ask some questions of Hexxeh, who just released Chrome OS Zero a few days ago and talks about how he got started, future job prospects and some features in his latest version.

Tell us about yourself.

Well I’m a UK college student doing AS levels, planning on doing Computer Science at uni. I do web development work here and there, worked a few cool projects. I’d say Chromium OS is one of the most interesting yet, though.

Why did you get you involved in Chrome OS?

I first heard about ChromeOS mid-2009 when the rumours were flying around about an OS from Google. When they made the announcement in November, I just saw it and thought “that looks like it’d be cool to play with”. So I downloaded a copy that night, a couple of hours and a bit of tinkering later, I had it running on my netbook, and I was happy with it. I decided to share it with a few friends who wanted to play around too, and they liked it, and shared it around.

So then I just created a site to share it on, I didn’t really have any intention of keeping it up to date, it was just something fun to toy around with for a bit. But then a few tech news sites made posts about it. This killed my small home server stone dead. It was clear people wanted more. So I released Chromium OS Diet, and the same happened again. It just went from there really, two versions later we’re at Zero and I’ve no intention of stopping yet, still got lots of ideas for new features and improvements.

Has the Google Chromium team been helpful when you have had problems come up?

Yeah, they have Google Groups where you can ask questions and it’s proved really useful, it tends to be the case that if I hit a problem, someone else had to and there was a fix. Where there wasn’t, I could ask and many people would come to the rescue and help me out. All in all, they’ve been great.

Are you getting a lot of support from the open-source community? In what ways have they helped you develop this project?

Many an open-source developer has offered to help out with various things, mirroring of the files, supporting the build server by buying shares of it as VPSes and so on. The #linux and #chromium-os  IRC (freenode) channels have been a great source of information too.

How much time do you spend working on this?

Too long, haha! When I get down to working on it, I’ll spend all night getting it to work, I don’t like leaving it until it works or it’s 6AM. This gets especially difficult when combined with college. But it’s totally worth it, I love reading the responses from people who’ve tried it out.

What are your goals for working on Chrome OS? There must be something that drives you to do this.

Long term goals are vastly improved hardware support. Obviously, we’ll follow the main Chromium OS source tree too, so any improvements made there will flow downstream to my builds. I hear stuff in the pipeline includes 3G modem support, multi-language support and a new login UI.

Anyone interested can check out the main Chromium OS wiki, much of the stuff there will make it’s way into the open-source builds. I like to think I might be building myself the possibility of working with Google is in the cards too, but we’ll have to see about that.

What do you think are the best new features of Chrome OS Zero?

The speed increases are one of the biggest things for most people. Personally, I’m a fan of the new artwork that was added, gives the build amore unique feel and makes it indentifiable against any others. While the update system didn’t ship with Zero, it will be able to be installed separately as a feature, that’s the big one for me. Right now, if I want to release even the tiniest of updates, that means a full new build.

There is a lot of work that goes into the build, and it can take a very long time to get it ready to download. The faster I can get the new stuff out to people and get feedback, the better.

Can you talk about how the auto-update capability works in Chrome OS Zero?

It’s pretty simple actually, the way I’ve designed it is so that it downloads a shell script from my server along with a payload archive, and simply executes the script so that the update is installed. After a reboot, anything changed should be available. You should get an pop-up message upon login if an update is available, with an option to install it or ignore it. 

There are a couple limitations, mostly the amount of disk space allocated by the image.  If it becomes a problem I’ll either have to try and trim more out of the OS or just publish a larger build. I’m hoping this will please the people who’ve been asking about fixing the problem where they lose their settings upon re-imaging a new version. The biggest potential issue is that I make a change breaks something for someone else.

I could maintain revert scripts, but I dunno, I think it’d be better for everyone if they just reported problems when they arise and I’ll try and get on it asap. Hopefully people can understand it’s not exactly easy to implement something like this.

Updates won’t be forced, but I can’t really support old versions, so it’s best to keep up. Hopefully this’ll please those with slower connections and low download limits too, downloading an update is far less expensive in terms of bandwidth than a full new image. You will, however, need to do full updates now and then to get the latest Chromium OS code, this is very difficult to do in an update cleanly.

What’s up with Flash? Is it Adobe or what?

Heh, the amount of people who’ve asked me about this! Was a case of bad luck really, I just happened to check out the code for Chromium at a point when there were problems with Flash, they were fixed very shortly after but I’d already started the build process and didn’t know. Hoping to push a hotfix out for this via the update system beta soon, along with a fix for Bookmark Sync.

Lastly, can you talk about what’s in store in the future for you?

I don’t know yet, but I’m pretty excited to find out myself. There was talk of the possibility of something happening with a couple companies, but we’ll see how it pans out. I’ll let you know how I get on, heh.

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