Why the first Chrome netbooks may not be so revolutionary

Summary:Acer and Lenovo will be among the first to release netbooks running Google's Chrome OS. These netbooks, which will be dual-boot systems with Windows XP as well, could be available as early as next month in some markets, according to several reports.

Acer and Lenovo will be among the first to release netbooks running Google's Chrome OS. These netbooks, which will be dual-boot systems with Windows XP as well, could be available as early as next month in some markets, according to several reports. HTC, the smartphone manufacturer, could also release a branded Chrome OS netbook.

If the reports are accurate (there's a lot of confusion over Chrome versus Android), that would be a big change in the timetable for the Chrome OS. Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said that computer companies will announce products before the end of this year. Prior to that, Google had said netbooks based on Chrome would not be available until the second half of 2010.

In early June, Acer was the first to announce that it would release a netbook running Google's Android. But a lot has changed in a month. Despite the hype, there were signs the industry was backing away from Android. Executives from chipmakers ARM and Nvidia suggested that Android still needed a lot more work. Then Google surprised the world by announcing a separate platform, Chrome OS, designed for "Web-centric" devices such as netbooks.

Like Android, the Chrome OS is based on Linux, but it is strictly for Web-based applications. Google is targeting devices that sound very similar to what Qualcomm refers to as smartbooks--small netbooks or Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) that boot instantly and are always online. Qualcomm worked with Google on the first Android smartphone, HTC's G1 for T-Mobile, and is also working with Google on Chrome OS, which will run on mobile devices with either ARM or Intel x86 chips. Other companies involved with Chrome include Acer, Asus, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba. Intel recently added itself to this list.

Many of those same computer makers had previously hinted that they were evaluating Android, but those plans are apparently on hold. The news site DigiTimes reported that Acer would go ahead with a dual-boot Aspire One running Android, but Asus and MSI had decided not to release Android netbooks.

That doesn't mean nothing is happening with Android. At an event to launch T-Mobile's new phone, the myTouch, last well, Google's Andy Rubin described a series of planned releases following last spring's Cupcake (also all named for desserts in alphabetical order) that would focus on social networking features. NTT DoCoMo has also released an Android phone in Japan, and Google expects 15 to 20 more Android devices to reach the market by the end of this year. Presumably most of these are smartphones, but Rubin said Android could find its way onto lots of devices such as "robots, GPS terminals and even refrigerators." Note the netbook was not on that list.

It sure sounds like Google will have two separate operating environments--one for embedded devices such as cell phones and the other for computers. Microsoft uses the same approach and that would make sense. But then Google confused things once again: Schmidt said Android and Chrome OS actually had a lot in common and could eventually merge. A series of supposed Chrome OS screenshots only added to the mystery.

There's still a lot we don't know about what a Google netbook will look like. But based on what little Google has revealed and the reports of dual-boot systems, one possibility is that initially the Chrome OS will turn out to be Google's version of the pre-boot micro-operating systems already found on several laptops and netbooks, which are also based on a lightweight Linux distribution. When you want to check e-mail, update your Facebook page, or find a meeting location, you can instantly boot the Chrome OS. When you need to create a Word document or edit photos, you'll probably wait for Windows.

Google can add a lot more value to that dual-boot scenario by using the speedy Chrome browser and the company's portfolio of Web-based applications and services (as well as Gears for off-line access). If they got it right, I suspect users would increasingly find that they could accomplish more and more tasks in the instant-boot Chrome OS without having to launch Windows, which would be a long-term threat to Microsoft. Eventually we would see netbooks and MIDs that used Chrome exclusively, especially with integrated mobile broadband. Perhaps those would arrive in the second half of 2010 with LTE or WiMax. In the short-term, that's hardly the revolution that the mainstream press has made Chrome out to be, but it could be a smart strategy for increasing Google's presence on the PC.

Topics: Mobility, Enterprise Software, Google, Hardware, Mobile OS, Smartphones


John Morris is a former executive editor at CNET Networks and senior editor at PC Magazine. He now works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are... Full Bio

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