Business, Not Just Play, Key to ChromeOS Cloud Success

Tablets are great for play, but a netbook OS needs to get work done.

After taking a whack at the whole tablet craze last week, it dawned on me that I hadn't heard much about ChromeOS lately.

ChromeOS,you will recall, is the browser-based operating system Google announced last July that will function as a platform for mobile Internet devices. At the time, I was pretty excited about it, because I was (and continue to be) impressed with the Chrome browser. For me, the notion of browser-as-platform resonates ever since I heard an executive from Netscape talk about it in 1998. At the time, it seemed completely crazy, but now we all know better.

By happy coincidence, as soon as I checked the usual sources for any recent news on ChromeOS, I discovered that just yesterday Google CEO Eric Schmidt discussed ChromeOS at the Atmosphere Cloud Computing forum.

The big take away from Schmidt's on-stage interview was the fact that when ChromeOS is released later this year, consumers should expect to see it on netbooks costing US$300-400--adding the caveat that prices will vary between manufacturers.

Pegging a $300 netbook would be a nice sweet spot for Google, definitely undercutting Apple's $499 price-point for the iPad and the expected ~$500-600 ranges many analysts are predicting for the next wave of iToo tablet devices set to come out. But the real question becomes, will price be enough?

Google has two problems to overcome with ChromeOS. First, getting it ready for the right customer. Right now ChromeOS is planned as a netbook platform, which means customer expectations for the operating system will be very different than if it were sitting on a tablet device. If you show someone a netbook with a 10-inch screen and tablet with a 10-inch screen, people are going to look at the netbook and think "okay, I can surf the web and all, but what work can I do on it?" It's the form factor: people see what essentially is a miniature laptop and expect that this machine will be able to do laptop things.

Schmidt himself acknowledged this is a real issue.

"At Google, we're getting ready to deploy these, essentially, Android- and Chrome-based devices that are in development. And so we want to of course eat our own dog food on how we want to build things. And so I said, okay good: let's imagine that from this day forward everything we did was a perfect web app. What would the world look like? Well even in our own--and this is a company that clearly has the religion--we found applications that were part of our business operations--sales, accounting, and so forth and so on--that were relatively non-strategic, that were highly tied to a specific vendor or a specific platform," Schmidt said in the "fireside chat."

Clearly, Google is expecting that users will want to get things done on ChromeOS, and I suspect the netbook form factor has something to do with it.

Or, is it the other way around? Is Google simply avoiding meeting Apple on its shiny new iTurf and deploying an OS that will let users play and knock out some work, too?

That would explain why Google has, apparently, decided to go with Android as the lead platform for tablets it or other companies are developing. Some pundits are looking at this decision askance and questioning whether there's something wrong with ChromeOS. After all, it was heavily touted as being the cloud platform of the future, and now Google's shoving out Android instead for tablets? Something must be falling apart!

I suspect something different. Android is going to work better for tablets for several reasons: its interface works better for devices without standard keyboards and pointers, there are already scads of applications available (something Apple is taking full advantage of with the iPhone/iPad relationship), and most importantly--no one expects to get any work done on a tablet. Yeah, you can do light editing and presentation work, but no one's going to mistake a tablet for a full-on work tool. Even the crew of the Enterprise sat down at their terminals to do the really heavy work; the PADDs were just for captains to read and sign.

If Google is prepping ChromeOS as a business-user alternative for MIDs, then it really does belong on a netbook, while Android is a better fit for tablets. This is a good plan, because if ChromeOS is properly implemented, it will allow ChromeOS-devices to bypass competition with the iPad juggernaut and go head-to-head with, well, not much else. Android, which is apparently scaring Apple into "losing" iPhone prototypes at bars just to get attention, should match up well iPads on tablets.

What remains to be seen is the implementation: will ChromeOS have the business apps it needs to attract workers to the cloud? That, I believe, is the key to ChromeOS' success.

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