By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 10:41 am
It’s been an exceptionally eventful week for news about the future of Google’s operating systems. On Monday night, I attended the opening session of the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital: Dive Into Mobile conference in San Francisco, cohosted by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. It featured a meaty conversation with Andy Rubin, the father of Android. Then yesterday, I took a side trip from Dive Into Mobile to go to Google’s Chrome event, which ended with details on Chrome OS’s rollout. (The Chrome OS notebooks that were supposed to go on sale this holiday season have been postponed until the first half of 2011, but Google is launching a pilot program based around a test Chrome OS device called the Cr-48.)
Both events answered some of my questions about what’s next for Google’s OSes, but they also left me asking new ones. Here they are–starting with ones relating to Chrome OS, since we learned more about it than we did about the next generation of Android.
When I attended Google’s first Chrome OS event, back in November of 2009, I left pretty skeptical about the whole idea. This time I left…well, at least a little less skeptical than I went in. Google is trying to address some of Chrome OS’s potential dealbreakers–most notably, “How do I use a cloud-based OS when I can’t get to the cloud?” And the success of the iPad and Galaxy Tab show that millions of people are willing to pay meaningful amounts of money to buy computing devices that don’t run operating systems that have been around for decades.
A year ago, Google said that Acer, Asus, HP, and Lenovo were on board for Chrome OS. Today, it announced that Acer and Samsung would release products in the first half of next year, with more manufacturers to follow. Maybe Asus, HP, and Lenovo are still gung-ho about the project, but I didn’t hear their names mentioned today. (I wonder if HP would now prefer to build any machine along these lines using its own Web OS?)
Google’s new blog post on Chrome OS says that “Chrome OS is designed to work across a wide range of screen sizes and form factors, enabling our partners to deliver computing devices beyond notebooks.” The company is also saying that it’s focusing on Android, not Chrome OS, for tablets. So what does that leave–desktops? With Google TV already out there and based on Android, is there any chance that Google will unveil a Chrome OS TV box?
The coolest thing about Chrome OS notebooks is that they store everything in the cloud. It’s also the biggest gotcha. So the news that Verizon Wireless will be offering contract-free 3G access for Chrome OS device owners is a big deal–especially the part about every Chrome OS buyer getting 100MB of data a month for free. 100MB isn’t enough to let you use your laptop anywhere and everywhere without thinking about it, but it’ll help. I’d love to know the economics of the deal–is Google subsidizing wireless access to make Chrome OS more appealing? And will anyone else respond with similar offers for other laptops, tablets, or other devices?
Last year, Google didn’t seem that interested in making Chrome OS useful sans Internet. Yesterday, it showed Google Docs working in an offline mode (apparently not based on Google Gears). It also explained that some apps from the Chrome Web Store, such as the New York Times’ one, will work without a connection. But I’m still not clear just how much you’ll be able to do when you’re not online.
We still don’t know–and neither do Google and its hardware partners, presumably, since prices for the Acer and Samsung models will be set closer to their release. How much would the Cr-48 cost if Google were charging for it rather than giving it away? Here’s a guess, although I haven’t seen detailed specs: $449.
They might, but when you think about it, they’re radically different approaches to the future of computing. Chrome OS netbooks have an extremely traditional form factor, can’t run local apps, and store everything in the cloud. The iPad has an extremely untraditional form factor, runs local apps by the boatload, and doesn’t store much of anything in the cloud unless you go out of your way to do so.
Chrome OS already has a little competition–startup Jolicloud has built a minimalist OS of its own, and Splashtop has long offered a browser-centric OS that PC makers build into systems as a Windows alternative. But will any other big browser company go head-to-head with Chrome OS? Let’s see: I can’t imagine that Internet Explorer OS or Safari OS is on its way. And while Firefox OS and Opera OS sound at least slightly more plausible, the fact that Google failed to meet its original deadline proves that turning a browser into an operating system isn’t a cakewalk. I’m guessing Chrome OS will remain unique, at least until other companies have a chance to gauge whether it’s catching on.
I started out thinking it was for clueless-newbie consumers who didn’t need anything very fancy and might be intimidated by the work involved in learning and maintaining a PC or a Mac. But the emphasis at this week’s event seemed to be on business types (a representative from Citrix was onstage to show Chrome OS accessing enterprise applications) and the power geeks who will be eager to get their hands on the Cr-48. I can’t quite tell whether Google hasn’t given that much thought to its target audience…or whether the target audience, as with Windows, is everybody.
When the company announced Chrome OS in July of 2009, it was a different era–one in which netbooks were very nearly sexy and the tablet market didn’t yet exist. And Google thought it would have Chrome OS systems on the market in time for the 2010 holiday season. I’m not saying that Chrome OS is a mistake, or that anyone at Google is anything but enthusiastic about the project. (CEO Eric Schmidt seemed downright giddy at yesterday’s event.) But a lot has happened since Google decided to go ahead with this effort. One bit of evidence: When it started talking about Chrome, it said it would run on netbooks–but I don’t think the word “netbook” was used once yesterday. Everyone on stage called the Cr-48 and other machines in the works “notebooks.”
At Dive Into Mobile, Rubin briefly used a prototype Motorola Android tablet (running the upcoming “Honeycomb” version of the OS) to show a cool new verion of Google Maps with a 3D view. It was a tease, not an announcement. But was the clearest sneak peek we’ve gotten of Google’s Android tablet strategy so far. And Rubin–who isn’t nearly as omnipresent as some Silicon Valley tech execs–had plenty of other things to say about Android.
I’ve become convinced that the fact that Android phones have four physical buttons–home, menu, back, and search–isn’t a benefit that makes using the handset quicker and easier. It’s a wrongheaded, outdated design decision that makes Android phones harder to use than the iPhone (or, for that matter, the Palm Pre or Windows Phone 7 handsets). Rubin said that the Motorola tablet he was demoing has no physical buttons. Sounds good to me. Will Google bring this approach to phones as well as tablets? We don’t know yet, and it might be a while before we do: Rubin said that Android’s major interface changes will show up on tablets before they make their way to phones. (I don’t think that Google could simply dump the idea of the four buttons in one fell swoop: existing Android apps are too dependent on them.)
In answer to one question, Rubin said that Android in its current form is for early adopters, and people married to early adopters. This startled me. I mean, Google says that 200,000 Android handsets are being activated a day; are there really that many hardcore tech enthusiasts out there? Or are some of those 200,000 people getting an operating system that isn’t yet the best possible fit for their needs? I suspect that many Android fans would disagree with Rubin’s assessment–at least one did when I Tweeted it–but it’s comforting to hear the man in charge of Android acknowledge that it requires further denerdification.
Someone asked whether Android, which ships in different versions on different devices, often with interface modifications imposed by manufacturers or carriers, is fragmented. (I sure think it is.) Rubin said it isn’t–or at least that the only people who are bugged by it are people who review tech products, and therefore experience multiple Android phones in a short period of time. Okay. But for the record, I just bought a Verizon Fascinate–a nice phone that’s on numerous lists of the best Android-powered devices right now–and it still can’t run Flash, because it still runs Android 2.1. (Which, with this week’s release of the first Android 2.3 device, is now two versions out of date.) The Fascinate has plenty of company. You can argue that this is something other than fragmentation–call it outdateditis if you prefer–but I’d still love to hear Rubin or another Google exec acknowledge that it’s not a great situation, and say that the company is working on ways to bring the newest versions of Android to more devices more quickly.
Two years ago, there was one Android phone, the T-Mobile G1. Now, Rubin said, there are 172 of them. Pretty amazing. It seems unlikely that we’ll see 172 different Android tablets by 2013, but I wonder whether Honeycomb’s release will lead to dozens of models hitting the market in relatively short order.
Whew. If you have any answers or educated guesses on anything above–or additional questions of your own, I’d love to hear them. Meanwhile, I should be able to form a more definitive opinion of Chrome OS soon: I’m getting a Cr-48 from Google to try out for myself.