By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 11:48 am
A year and three-quarters ago, Google announced that it was working on Chrome OS, an operating system that was just a browser (or, if you prefer, a browser that had evolved into an operating system). That was a long, long time ago. In mid-2009, netbooks were trendy. The iPad didn’t exist. Android was merely a phone operating system, and one that was still just getting started at that.
This operating system thing turned out to be tricky: Chrome OS-based computers were supposed to hit the market by the end of 2010, but the schedule slipped, so the only one that met that deadline was Google’s own experimental CR-48. At today’s Google I|O keynote, however, Google laid out the basic info of the first two “Chromebooks” (a term I’ve been using for awhile and which Google is now championing) that will go on sale.
Both machines will be available starting June 15th from Amazon and BestBuy.com.
Google also announced that it will have package deals for businesses and schools that will outfit everybody in the organization with Chromebooks, service and support, and free upgrades to new models for $28 a month and $20 a month, respectively. And Samsung is working on a Mac Mini-like tiny Chrome OS desktop.
When I wrote about the CR-48 in December, I guessed that it might cost about $449 if it were a commercial device. A bunch of folks thought I’d estimated too high But the Samsung sounds very similar to the Cr-48 in most respects–it does have a better processor–and it’ll be $449 with 3G broadband, a feature I had thought was supposed to be standard on all Chromebooks. So if anything I was a bit on the low side.
These prices are only a tad less than you might pay for a Windows 7 computer with roughly comparable features. So I don’t think many folks will rush to buy Chromebooks based on price alone–they’ll only do it if Chrome OS-based computers deliver a noticeably better experience, with the fast boot times, lack of security and management hassles, long battery life, and general pleasantness that Google is claiming. And if they’re confident they don’t need any programs that won’t run on a Chromebook, and can live with the systems’ limited functionality when the Internet isn’t available. (At this morning’s keynote, Google said that Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs will all work offline starting this summer–and large quantities of apps from the Chrome Web Store already do.)
Oh, and there’s the issue of support for external devices. Google said today that Chromebooks will support USB devices such as cameras. But as far as I know, you won’t be able to sync your iPod Touch or connect a mobile scanner, or do any of a bunch of other tasks that require the existence of drivers.
Even after plenty of hands-on time with the CR-48, I’m befuddled by Chrome OS. In some ways, its 2009 roots are showing: I have a hard time believing that if Google wouldn’t simply use Android if it decided to tackle this project today. (Actually, I attended an Android session here at I/O during which the presenter was bragging about Honeycomb as a notebook OS.) But Chromebooks also assume the existence of plentiful, affordable wireless Internet access, a scenario that still isn’t quite here–especially if you try to save a few bucks by buying a Wi-Fi-only Chromebook.
I get the virtues that Google is touting as Chrome OS’s reason for being. They sound appealing. But most of them are ones that the iPad has today, with a wealth of apps and without the downside of limited offline functionality. And Honeycomb isn’t that far from being able to match them either.
So is the Chrome OS concept an artifact of an era that ended when the iPad arrived? Or is it a very early incarnation of a device that will make perfect sense once cheap Internet access is truly pervasive? I’m still trying to figure that out–I think the answer may be “both,” but I’d love to hear your opinions.