Can Google's Chrome save the netbook market?

The first Chrome OS netbooks may be ready to ship soon. But in a post-iPad market, will they find a customer base?

It's no secret that the netbook market has cooled since this time last year and it's no secret that the iPad has been a contributing factor. How a big a factor is open to debate, but with capabilities and portability similar to a netbook, a wide selection of easy to download apps, tons of entertainment potential, and a similar price point, the iPad can be seen as a viable (and somewhat attractive) alterative. With mass releases of Android tablets like the Galaxy Tab and hybrid tablet/e-reader devices like Barnes and Noble's upcoming NOOKcolor, the mobile computing options are diversifying quickly and at varying price points.

While netbook sales have cooled, no one would count them out completely. Reports that the first netbooks running Google's Chrome OS are almost ready to ship adds a new dimension to the field of low-cost mobile solutions.

When Google announced plans to ship Chrome OS netbooks last year, the playing field was a lot smaller and Chrome was big news in many tech circles. In the intervening months, however, Chrome has faded from a lot of people's consciousness. Any talk about a Google operating system these days is centered around Android.

That said, Chrome may help reinvigorate the netbook market. The OS is designed to integrate with Google's suites of web services such as GMail and Google Docs, making it a more cloud-centric OS than anything on the market (either as a desktop or mobile OS). With the explosion of cloud services, this could pan out as a major success story for Google.

On the other hand, it could backfire. With a range of netbooks already out there (running either Windows 7 Startup or Linux), Chrome may not be a distinguishing factor in and of itself.

One challenge may be in the area of apps. While Google's cloud services offer a lot of features, there's always going to be some the company doesn't offer and a vibrant marketplace for third-party apps could be a critical factor. Even with the company's plans for a web apps store, Google may not gain a mass developer following. Google will also have to make sure it markets a web app store carefully (as many mobile users tend to think of web apps as inferior stop-gap measures compared to native apps).

Another challenge will be marketing and sales. As with the failed Nexus One smartphone, Google is allegedly planning to sell the first Chrome netbooks direct to customers, bypassing any retail channels. This could limit exposure to the platform significantly. Although HP and Acer have announced plans to follow with their own netbooks running Chrome, if the initial sales from Google itself aren't compelling, other companies will likely scale back their initial shipments.

Whatever the success of Chrome OS netbooks may be, the device will join an increasingly crowded market of mobile devices for work and personal use.

Think the netbook is a dying product niche? Think Chrome can revive the market? Have your say in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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