For an operating system that’s so fast, it’s taking a heck of a long time coming to market. I’m referring to Chrome OS, Google’s new platform that was supposed to be available inside netbooks by this holiday. Instead, Google has launched a pilot program with a prototype device, dubbed the Cr-48.
“Chromebooks” from Acer and Samsung are now not expected until the first half of next year, with other manufacturers to follow. Google also says that Chrome OS will accommodate other form factors, which we presume means tablets. Last time I checked, that’s Android territory. What is Google doing?
Just a day before Google provided an update on its Chrome OS progress and showed off its new Web Store for applications (which you can now get in the browser), Google’s vice president of mobile platforms Andy Rubin showed off Motorola’s first Android tablet. The software running this prototype, codenamed Honeycomb, is optimized for slates. It has dual-pane views (just like the iPad), a redesigned desktop with pop-up windows, and what looks like Google video chat support baked in. All of the above sounds pretty sweet, which makes Chrome OS that much more of a head-scratcher for tablets.
Chrome OS does have plenty of strengths for clamshells. First of all, Chrome is fast. Google says that netbooks running the software should boot in 10 seconds and wake from sleep instantly. You’ll also get 3G/4G built in for always-on connectivity, and Verizon Wireless is stepping up to the plate with more flexible data plans. These include a $10 per day pass and 100MB of free data every month (just enough to get users hooked). You can do work offline, too; Google demonstrated this capability with Google Docs.
There’s more good news. Chrome OS is a dream come true for IT managers, both real ones and those of us who are treated like one when friends and family members run into trouble. Because the software is protected from most malware out of the box, users won’t have to worry about security or upgrades (which happen automatically).
Where things start to break down for me is the Chrome Web Store. On the plus side, the Web Store looks nice and clean, and it’s easy to find apps in different categories. Installing apps is also fast.
However, I have a couple of issues so far. The Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online golf game asked me to register after I downloaded the app (no thanks). Both TweetDeck and the PopIt game were slow to load over a mobile broadband connection, which speaks to the continued challenges of cloud computing. 4G will be a must for Chrome OS netbooks. There also needs to be an easier way to access downloaded apps than opening a new tab; Chrome should automatically create a bookmark/app folder.
Do I think consumers would want Chrome OS on a tablet? Definitely not in the near future. Samsung has already sold 1 million Galaxy Tabs using Android, and that’s using a version of the OS that was made for phones. Now developers are expected to pour a ton of resources into Honeycomb, which Andy Rubin says was built with slates in mind. That leaves Chrome OS in a difficult position. While I certainly see the benefits of promoting robust web-based applications, I just don’t see Google maintaining two app storefronts for the long term. With its upcoming Mac App Store, Apple will also have two stores, but Steve Jobs and company have drawn a clear line between mobile and desktop apps.
Over time, I can see some of the best parts of Android and Chrome OS merging. For example, Chrome could become the browser on Android-based devices, especially as hardware capabilities increase. Chrome OS could also teach developers how to write better, more efficient web apps that work on any connected device, regardless of the underlying platform. But right now, Google’s mobile strategy seems cloudier than ever.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.