Prepare to dump your powerful Windows notebook or Apple MacBook in the middle of next year. Today, Google announced that PC manufacturers led by Acer and Samsung will start selling diskless Intel Atom-powered netbooks that will have web apps as their native apps. Other manufacturers will follow. However, Google says it's still a "work in progress" and is unwilling to quote a possible price.
At a press conference in California today (Tuesday), Google announced a pilot programme that will see a number of businesses testing a sample netbook, dubbed the Cr-48 after an isotope of chrome. Participating companies include American Airlines, Kraft, Virgin America, Logitech, and the US Defense Department. Some American consumers will also be able to take part by applying online. Google is also giving netbooks to the journalists who attended its press conference. (Sadly, not to those of us who watched the webcast.)
The Cr-48 netbook has a 12.1 inch screen, an oversized clickpad, a webcam, and some unstated amount of Flash memory, which uses a Trusted Platform Module to perform a secure boot. The machine communicates via 802.11n Wi-Fi and also has a Verizon SIM for 3G data. The device can't do much useful work without an interenet connection (though some stuff can be cached) and Wi-Fi is not always available. The netbook does not have function keys, and the caps-lock key has become a Search button. There's no optical drive or HDMI port. Google says battery life is 8+ hours. It weighs 3.8 lbs.
Google said the idea was to give users "the same Chrome experience everywhere", whatever their device. The "Chrome experience" includes Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Chrome OS netbooks, but not Android, which comes from a different team.
Asked about tablets, Google said that its original aim was to produce a portable computer, and that's what it had done. "Thousands of Googlers are actually using this as their primary computer." After that, it hoped to expand both up and down the scale. "We'll take it one step at a time."
The choice of an Intel Atom chip was expected but still represents a blow to ARM's hopes. However, later versions could use different processors.
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt made a cameo appearance to say that "this is not a new idea". He said Sun Microsystems, where he used to work, produced diskless workstations in the 1980s, and that he'd been involved with Oracle's announcement of the network computer in 1997. The NC was supposed to replace personal computers, but it flopped.
Schmidt said the NC was "exactly what we're talking about today. Why did it fail? Why should you believe us now?" Moore's Law had seen a 1000x improvement in technology since then, networks were now reliable, we could now build powerful web-based applications that weren't possible then, and we were all more mobile. Now Chrome OS would be "a viable third alternative" (presumably to Windows and Mac OS X). "It's different: it's not the same," said Schmidt. "It's different in ways that are important if you believe in cloud computing."
The number of people who believe in this strongly enough to dump their powerful Windows notebooks or Apple MacBooks may well be extremely small. However, some of them will be IT managers who like the idea a lot -- as long as they're buying them for other people.
Some consumers might also like the idea of having a Chrome OS netbook as a second machine, though they might now fancy an Apple iPad or RIM or Samsung tablet instead. Chrome OS netbooks might be functional, up to a point, but they don't look nearly as much fun.