On the second day of its Google I/O conference on Wednesday, Google announced that Chrome OS-based notebook computers, now called Chromebooks, would ship on June 15—a further stepping up of the online giant's widespread attack against Microsoft's core markets. Chromebooks will be made available from multiple PC makers, to consumers, businesses, and educational institutions, and in multiple countries, all on the same day, Google said.
"Whether it be Microsoft or other OS vendors, I think the complexity of managing computers is really torturing users out there," said Google Cofounder Sergey Brin. "That's a flawed model, fundamentally. Chromebooks [represent] a new model that doesn't put the burden of managing your computer on yourself."
Although still limited in some ways when compared with richer, more functional PC-based notebooks, Chromebooks do indeed answer some of the key concerns that users—and, perhaps as important, those who manage the devices in large environments—have today. That is, they offer a much simpler management model, with automatic, hands-off security and software updating.
Chromebooks—and a related desktop-based cousin now called the Chromebox—also have other advantages over PCs. They boot from a dead stop in eight seconds. They resume from sleep instantaneously. They offer great battery life (6.5 to 8 hours for the first two shipping models) and pervasive connectivity, thanks to integrated Wi-Fi and, optionally, 3G wireless capabilities.
Of course, the big complaint about these machines is that the OS that powers them—Google's browser-based Chrome OS—is too limited and requires the machine to be online to be useful. So, since releasing a limited public beta of a preproduction Chromebook called the Cr-48, Google has tweaked the OS and the resulting production machines in key ways to address feedback and complaints.
For starters, Chrome OS will support offline web apps, and Google's own Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs web apps will be updated by this summer to support that capability. The company noted that many Chrome-based web apps (including most games) already support this functionality. (And a free version of Angry Birds for Chrome was announced and released at the show.)
As important, perhaps, is that Chrome OS now supports local storage with a basic file manager and photo downloader, and you can interact with obvious file types—photos and pictures, documents, videos, and so on—with local applications. Google provides basic handlers that interact with key Google web services—Picasaweb for photos, for example, and Google Docs for Word documents and PDFs—but third parties can build their own Chrome OS extensions using an open API, a feature that should lead to pervasive support for multiple popular web services.
The goal is to make Chrome OS more effective as an offline computer, such as when flying or in other connection-less situations, although in this early form it will still lack some key Windows and Mac OS features. For example, most Chromebooks ship with small amounts of storage, so they won't be ideal for video playback on a flight.
Speaking of Chromebooks, three were announced Wednesday. (No Chromebox hardware was officially announced, though the machine Google briefly showed resembled an Apple Mac mini.) Samsung will be selling two Chromebooks, one with Wi-Fi for $429 and one with added 3G wireless for $499; these devices feature a 12.1" screen and 8 hours of battery life. An Acer Chromebook will start at $349 and feature an 11.6" screen and 6.5 hours of battery life. (The implication was that there would eventually be multiple Acer models or perhaps configurable options, neither of which was available at the time of this writing.) Both will go on sale on June 15, Google said, in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.
Samsung's first Chromebook
Also happening on June 15 is the start of an intriguing program for businesses, educational institutions, and governmental bodies in which Google Chromebooks can be purchased via a three-year subscription program that will cost $28 per user per month for businesses and just $20 per user per month for educational and governmental organizations. These offerings feature support for no-questions-asked machine replacement for the life of the subscription and a simple, centralized web management console for managing the devices, users, apps, and group policies. At the end of the three years, customers can transfer the subscriptions to a new Chromebook model.
Will corporations bite? As many have noted, businesses aren't normally among early adopters, and even Google Vice President Sundar Pichai admitted that most companies today were still running an OS—Windows XP--that was released a long decade ago. But that's because it's so hard to upgrade Windows, he argues, and not because companies don't want the latest technologies and features.
That notion is about to be put to the test.
For more information about the Chrome OS and Chrome announcements from Google I/O, please read my post on the SuperSite Blog.