Google is perhaps making no bigger gamble on its cloud-computing reputation than with the launch of notebooks based on its Chrome operating system.
Chrome OS, the search-engine giant’s Web-based platform for computers, eschews the traditional, localized platform and long-running BIOS startup process of Microsoft Windows laptops for Web applications and machines with minimal Flash storage that load within 8 seconds.
Google officials unveiled notebooks from Samsung and Acer at the Google I/O developer conference May 11. The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook will sport a 12.1-inch screen and will cost $429 for WiFi-only; the WiFi+3G model will run $499. Acer’s 11.6-inch model Chromebook will have fewer bells and whistles and will run $349.
Both Chromebooks will retail online June 15 at Amazon and Best Buy in the U.S., as well as in the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.
While the consumer model is a traditional one-time purchase, Google is trying something new for businesses and schools: Chromebooks as a subscription service.
Businesses may procure machines in bulk for $28 per user, per month. Schools may do the same for $20 per user, per month. Each plan requires a three-year service agreement that includes a warranty, support, service and hardware replacements when necessary.
IDC analyst Al Hilwa said he could see such a model becoming more mainstream. The issue, he argued, is whether consumers are comfortable being completely dependent on the cloud.
“The way these systems are architected, it appears that their viability pivots on connectivity,” Hilwa told eWEEK. “There is no doubt that we will see more and more things done in the cloud over time but I see this as an incremental transition.
eWEEK received hands-on time with the Samsung Series 5, which comes in Arctic White or Titan Silver, weighs only 3.3 pounds and booted within eight seconds. The SuperBright screen was crisp and clear, and well-suited for use outdoors. Web applications installed and loaded very quickly.
Jefferies & Co analyst Peter Misek was less sanguine about Google’s ambitious plan, with respect to the inherent tensions it may create between Chrome OS and Google’s Android operating system, which leverages the cloud for smartphones and tablet computers.
Google Is Betting Big on Chromebooks
“We are still unsure why Google is continuing with its Chrome OS rather than rolling its cloud efforts into Android. Chrome is focused on netbooks, which we view as a dying product category,” Misek wrote May 13.
No one disputes netbook sales have waned in the advent of Apple’s iPad, but there is still a major use case for them, argued Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala.
While tablets hew well to the cloud-computing model, they are largely for media consumption, such as watching movies or playing games, Kerravala wrote in a blog post May 12.
Accordingly, users still rely on laptops, most of which run Windows “built for an era of portability and not mobility with an optimized user experience.” The Chromebook, he maintained, offers the accessibility of cloud-hosted content with the comfortable input mechanism of the keyboard.
“Our research is focused around the thesis that the companies that find a way to provide a high-quality, connected user experience will be the long-term winners in this era of pervasive connectivity,” Kerravala added. “With that understanding, Chrome OS gives Google a legitimate shot at taking some corporate share from Microsoft.”
That has, after all, been one of Google’s goals with Google Apps. Now, it has the OS platform and hardware vehicles with which to drive its applications in the cloud.
Misek also noted that Google has still not solved the problem of using Google Apps while offline the way users may do with Microsoft Office.
Indeed, Hilwa noted that eschewing traditional PC applications will narrow the scope of Chromebooks, making them mostly unsuitable for everyday business use at this time.
However, Google Chrome Senior Vice President of Product Management Sundar Pichai noted that offline support for Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and dozens of other applications are forthcoming.
“I expect hybrid architectures using cloud+offline to be the prevailing norm for a long time to come, and I am going to guess that Windows will start featuring more and more cloud services in its next release,” Hilwa added.