Please read update below (perhaps there are no surprises left after all)
In an industry plagued with leaks, there are very few genuine surprises left in technology announcements, but this is one...
Without warning Google has unveiled a public beta of Chrome OS its first desktop specific operating system. Given that a) the platform had not been expected until mid 2010 and b) we hadn't even had so much as an official screenshot, the fact we can now download the whole thing has left us gob smacked.
So what can we deduce? Very little since we haven't yet had time to install it and take it for a test drive, but it's Linux roots are clear for all to see (Google even includes the term ‘chromeoslinux' in official URL). There is also a healthy dose of Ubuntu in its styling. Furthermore with Google referring to it as v0.4.223 it is clearly a long way from v1.0, though interestingly it has skipped the usual pre-beta ‘alpha' which suggests significant progress is being made.
As for features and functionality Chrome OS has a GNOME 2.24 desktop environment, the Chrome web browser (also noticeably at v4.0.233), a new Picasa 2.7 photo manager, Flash Player 10.0 and the GIMP 2.6 image editor. What we didn't expect to see is the OpenOffice 3.0 productivity suite since it overlaps with Google's own Cloud-based Docs suite and suggests Google is looking to strike more of a desktop/web based balance than we initially expected.
System requirements? Given Chrome OS was marked on being extremely fast and lightweight, not much. Intel Pentium, Xeon and above, AMD Duron, Athlon, Sempron and Opteron are supported, just 256MB RAM is required, 1GB of drive space and "most modern graphics card" work just fine, which I suspect means pretty much anything. The download itself weighs in at circa 550MB depending on whether you go for the VMDK or ISO so will easily fit on a standard CD. Google is distributing the download over Bittorent, which makes a lot of sense, but does warn there is no ‘Live CD mode' so unlike some Linux builds you will have to fully install it to run it.
A word of warning: Google products tend to emerge in an extremely raw first state so set your expectations accordingly. After all the Google Wave backlash has already begun extremely prematurely. At this stage the Chrome OS beta simply represents the first dainty steps of competition for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X and that has to be a good thing...
Update: It could all turn out to be too good to be true since closer inspection on the site claims: "Chrome OS is not related to Google. Service provided by SUSE Studio. See the license." An early test of the platform or an elaborate hoax? No doubt we'll find out soon, but my thoughts are we may be looking at a fan made solution. Ho and indeed hum.