The rumors have been flying around that Google will introduce a low-cost PC sold through mass market retailers like Wal-Mart. According to the sources-said report from the Los Angeles Times, the PC would run Google's Linux-flavored operating system and be tuned for online services. And, it would cost far less than a share of Google. As my colleague David Berlind speculated months ago, a Google PC is not a new or unexpected concept:
It's a network computer with a few extra bells and whistles to support things like Google Talk. It looks feels, and smells like a svelte network computer but has 95 percent of the functionality of the PC that took me where no man should go last week. It can do everything a business PC can do because, hey, guess what: all our business apps can be SaaSyized anyway. But, at the end of the day, the Google PC (or maybe Yahoo will beat them) isn't much more than what today's cable boxes and cell phones are: remarkably thin clients (given what they do) that are customized to take full advantage of all that service provider has to offer. Oh, and produced in partnership with "the carrier."
Google co-founder Larry Page is delivering a keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Friday afternoon PST (we'll have all the details and video clips from his talk), and according to the LA Times story, he will either reveal the so-called Google PC or announce an agreement with a major retailer to sell such a system.
I speculated last month about an Google Internet appliance of the kind that David describes. A commodity Internet appliance/PC would extend the Google brand (and potentially charge up the non-Windows world and the long promised, but so far poorly received incarnations of the Internet PC) and provide a low-cost platform for accessing online services and applications. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has talked vaguely about an iPod-like device for accessing the world's information, although Google seriously lacks Apple's design sensibilities. The company could could easily acquire the expertise.
While a Google Internet appliance isn't a super technical challenge, what's the compelling reason for the company to get into the mass market hardware business, in which plug-and-play and reliability are requirements--no beta hardware or OS software please.
There's no reason why Google can't build and brand a $100 to $200 PC, but does the company that wants to organize the world's information want to go beyond its search enterprise appliance hardware at this point. Is the prospect of supplying the world--especially the developing economies--with Google hardware, and extending its footprint with more than bits, worth the hassle of being in the mass market hardware business, which is different from the beta Internet services business?
Doesn't Google have enough to do improving its software services without expanding in yet another direction, or is growing more tentacles the order of the day. Clearly, Google could outsource most of the work and use partners like Wal-Mart to do heavy lifting. Hardware works for companies like Dell and Apple, why not Google. It has the money and headcount to invest in quality assurance and support services for a consumer hardware device, and the idea of booting up, to use an old term, your Google machine has to have a nice ring. Maybe Sun can lend a hand with Google's effort, or perhaps the Googlers are acting as more than just a sponsor for the $100 PC that MIT is promoting.
Nonetheless, I'm not convinced that Google is ready to become a serious hardware company (including the underlying software) other than for its own, and massive, infrastructure build out. If there is any truth the recent story originating with the LA Times, it may be a testing of the waters. At its heart Google is a software company and is just biding its time until the cost of hardware goes to zero. While the cost is driving to zero, and you have an engine of revenue creation (ads), put the two together and you get a very low-cost Google consumer appliance. Instead of a monthly fee to purchase the hardware, a small fee to use various higher-end services, or no fees based on accepting an ad package.
An Internet appliance is not the only candidate for a Google hardware debut. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch wraps up some of the speculation, including the notion of a Google Cube from a Bear Stearns report, via a Robert X. Cringely post about a consumer hardware device that lets users digital media between various devices, simplifying the consumption of video, music and even telephony services.
Google isn't talking and Wal-Mart cites the reports as rumors. Perhaps we'll find out more on Friday...