Has Google missed the boat with Chrome OS?

Google provided the first demos of its Chrome OS today, but with notebooks running it delayed till next year, will it even be relevant when it finally ships?

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Google unveiled its Chrome web app store today and provided the first demos of a Chrome OS notebook (which some have dubbed a Chomebook). Although Google announced its Chrome OS initiative over a year ago, with plans to ship Chrome OS netbooks sometime this year, the company had only a reference device to show at the announcement and said that there is still work to be on Chrome OS before it is made available to manufacturing partners next year. Samsung and Acer were named as the first partners with a predicted release date somewhere in mid-2011.


The details of Chrome OS and the notebooks it will run on have been pretty well covered both here at ITWorld and across the web, but here's a quick recap of the major points:

  • The OS is essentially browser-based
  • Multiple users will be supported on each device
  • Themes and settings for each user will be stored in the cloud, allowing for easy setup of new machines
  • All apps will be web apps (some free, some paid) available in Google's web app store
  • Purchased or "installed" apps will be tied to a user's Google account
  • All apps will be HTML5 compliant and many will offer some form of offline access
  • All machines will support 3G connectivity
  • 3G connectivity will be provided by Verizon in the U.S.
  • Each device will come with two years of contract-free 3G service of 100MB free each month and contract-free plans beyond that (the most common is likely to a $9.99/day unlimited data plan)
    As yet, there is no USB support
  • Google is pushing its Internet-based Cloud Print service as the primary (and likely only) printing option
  • Pricing will be determined by the manufacturers sometime next year
  • Some businesses will be able to run pilot projects with a reference machine called the Cr-48 (named for a Chromium isotope)
  • Individuals are also welcome to apply to test the Cr-48, though availability will be very limited

There's a lot to potentially praise and criticize here:

  • The utter dependence on the cloud and web apps may be a turn off for many users
  • The easy deployment and relative security will appeal to small business, schools, and some larger organizations provided they've already invest in Google Apps as a platform
  • The contract-free 3G plan is good (though 100MB won't be of much use to most people, although $30/month for unlimited access isn't bad), but the lack of choice may not be appealing to everyone (and is a bit surprising given Google's constant protestations of choice and openness)
  • The potential lack of peripheral support may be a turn off – particularly when it comes to printing (no matter how good Google may make Cloud Print, many use will probably feel more comfortable being able to connect a printer, especially on the road – in a hotel or airport business center for example)
  • But, the big question is: has Google missed the boat with Chrome OS?

    Like or hate parts of the Chrome OS approach, it has some merit, but it had more merit a year ago. And it will probably have a lot less six months from now. The iPad's release and the tablet explosion that is just now beginning to really take hold has completely changed the mobile playing field. Netbooks aren't the biggest market and best option for fully mobile computing anymore.

    Not only are users embracing the tablet form factor, they're embracing the immersive experience that tablets offer. That experience allows a more intimate and experiential interaction with ebooks, video and media content, creative applications, games, travel tools, and even business and productivity apps. And apps are a key part of the tablet experience. Yes, you can surf the web on a tablet and use web apps (and they're still a bit more immersive than a browser on any type of PC), but the real power and appeal of tablets shines through in well designed apps.

    With this extensive, and somewhat unexplained, delay from last fall's announcement to next summer's projected release, the entire concept of Chrome OS has fallen behind the rest of the mobile computing world. Tablets are the big news of today and, along with smartphones, they're going to be the big market of 2011 and beyond. In fact, projections now show smartphones and tablets overtaking overall PC sales next year.

    The almost comic irony is that Chrome OS is going to have to fight for market share against tablets running Android, Google's other mobile OS (which borrows some of the cloud-based approach of Chrome but doesn't limit apps to the web).

    Overall, it seems likely that Chrome OS may end up as a footnote in technology history – something good in concept that ended up missing the wave of where the industry and, more importantly, users were headed.

    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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