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Summary:

Nearly three years ago Google announced plans for its Chrome OS; a platform for networked computers. The OS has reached a point in maturity where it is useful. Today the company announced two devices – Chromebook & Chromebox that actually deliver on Google’s original promise.

Both devcies

We often joke Google is like the old Microsoft — getting things wrong, bumbling its way into new markets, and getting things right on the third try. This seems to be quite true of Google’s efforts to develop a cloud PC. Google and its partner, Samsung, are launching a new Chromebook and Chromebox today, targeting them at the educational and corporate customers.

The Chromebook from Samsung is like any other 12.1-inch budget laptop, while Chromebox is a tiny PC that you can connect to any keyboard, mouse and monitor similar to Apple’s Mac Mini. The Chromebook starts at $449 while the entry-level price of Chromebox is $329.

They both are powered by Intel Core processors and include 4GB RAM, Display Port, USB ports, gigabit ethernet, and dual band Wi-Fi. The Chromebox has Bluetooth and DVI output as well, while for $529 you can buy a Chromebook with an integrated 3G modem. And jokes aside, there is a lot to like about both of these new improved devices.

These cloud clients (networked PCs, tablets, smartphones, smart-TVs) are something of a religion for me. The growth of broadband connectivity is redefining the very notion of what is a computer. The new Chromebooks are just part of that change and with every software release we are getting closer to realize the networked computing vision first popularized in the late 1990s.

Chrome OS: The story so far

Forget the hardware, what makes all this work is the Chrome OS. Google announced its Chrome OS three years ago at the height of the short-lived netbook craze. We were excited about the new cloud-based OS and felt that in the future most desktop operating systems would successfully merge cloud-based services with local desktop offerings. In December 2010, Google released Chrome OS and Cr-48, an experimental device that resembled the retired black MacBook.

Cr-48 was released to a few thousand people and it was meant as a showcase for what Google’s Chrome OS. Let’s just say, it waslike a child only a mother can love. Interface, graphics and responsiveness of the OS itself, the web store, and the applications – everything was lacking and the release felt premature.In May 2011, Samsung and Acerannounced their intentions to release Chrome OS powered Chromebooks and finally, after two years of trying and tinkering, the company has released two new products that actually are worthy of attention.

What’s new in the new Chromebooks?

Google says it has has released eight new upgrades to Chrome OS over past 12 months and as a result you are seeing 2.5x (and higher) improvement in speeds of the devices as well as speedier boot times, much faster browsing and responsiveness with hardware-accelerated graphics and a new trackpad stack. Here are some other new additions:

  • Multi-window support and the UI scales from seamlessly scales from 11” to 30” screens.
  • An app launcher and an option to pin favorite/most used apps to the launchbar.
  • Now you can customize backgrounds.
  • Built-in ability to view office files, online and offline, support for dozens of file formats
  • There is Google Drive support and in the next version of the Chrome OS release, there will be support for online and offline usage and will syncs with other devices that connect to Google Drive.
  • Google says Google Docs offline editing will be rolling out over the next several weeks to all Docs users. Google is currently testing it inside Google.
  • New media player & a built-in photo editor and uploader

My Mini Review

I am not much of a reviewer these days. Since I don’t really play around with very many gadgets, I leave the reviews to experts – aka my colleague Kevin Tofel. Google sent me a device nonetheless. Here are some of my impressions – not necessarily a review. Since I have played with last two versions of Chromebooks, I am able to compare the performance of three different versions. And I can safely say, that the newest Samsung Chromebook (thanks to new improved OS, which will be available on all previous devices via an automatic upgrade) addresses most of the complaints I had with the older devices.

It is screamingly fast. Both the browser launch and browsing itself take advantage of improved hardware, graphics and most importantly the underlying OS. The trackpad, which used to have the responsiveness of a piece of wood, feels like a trackpad on any modern laptop. There are enough apps to actually use the device for more than a few mundane tasks, such as browsing and email.

I think what’s done the trick for me is video: YouTube is integrated into the experience, but thanks to improved graphics, I can enjoy Amazon Prime and Netflix video libraries in the browser. MLB works fantastically well. There are Chrome extensions for some of my other daily web/Internet activities — Facebook, Twitter and WordPress.

I actually started to go down the list of things I do on a daily basis on my computer and realized that the Chromebook can do about two-thirds of those tasks. That’s pretty good, except I do a lot of them on my iPad and as a result I don’t much need another computer.

Talking of main computers, there is a new application called Chrome Remote Desktop that allows you to access Macs and PCs and run apps on those machines in the browser even in full screen mode. This is very much like how you run a Citrix client and access Windows from another device. Remote Desktop is still in beta and I have not been able to test it, for I need to be whitelisted by Google. It seems like a pretty cool idea and makes sense for Google to offer this to its educational and corporate customers.

So who is Chrome OS good for?

When Google released Cr-48 in December 2010, I wrote:

Google will be best suited to focus Chrome OS and all its energies on business buyers — call centers, retail outlets and airlines to start with — and forget about the consumers.

Today, schools, retailers, call centers and airlines are the new focus customers for Google’s Chrome OS devices. Google says more than 500 schools have used these devices. Retailers such as Dillards are planning to deploy Chromeboxes in more than half of its US stores, while others such as Kaplan are moving their New York-based call center to Chromeboxes.

Google, having realized that is is prudent to focus on businesses, has started rolling out corporate features inside the Chrome OS. These include auto-update controls, auto-enrollment, open-network configuration and new reporting features, in addition to more than 20 new policies in the past year such as URL whitelisting and blacklisting.

Google says it is backing away from its device-as-a-service model and instead will start selling devices at a certain price plus fees for “our business/education service, which includes access to the management console, 24/7 phone support and a hardware warranty.” Businesses will pay $150 per device while Schools will pay $30 per device.

Who it impacts?

In the corporate market, Google Chrome OS-based PCs are unlikely to impact Apple but other makers who sell Windows-powered machines to corporations should indeed be worried.  In many ways, these new cheaper devices threaten to take away any growth prospects from Microsoft which needs to sell a lot of these devices in order to keep its Windows licensing revenue flowing. While some enterprises need true native apps and legacy support, Chromebooks and Chromeboxes will still appeal due to a lower cost for support and hardware. Companies that want to reduce IT support to employees, especially enterprises that are embracing the cloud, could find that Google’s new offerings meet their needs.

Bottomline

The ChromeOS and the devices based on the OS have reached a point in maturity where they can be used as an “optional” or second computer. It is also benefitting from the fact that most of us have become used to living and working inside the browser.

Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, GigaOm. Om Malik, founder of GigaOm, is also a venture partner at True.

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  1. I don’t remember seeing this before, so I’m going to ask. What is the EULA agreement for Chrome OS, specifically for enterprise/school installations? Will Google use business traffic to generate targeted ads? In a sense they can do this now when users point their browsers to Google and search. But if integrated at an ‘OS’ level, does this become more of an issue? How is it handled for organizations that use Google Mail and Docs?

  2. Cant wait to see the impact this will have in education. There’s an incomplete sentence though, the one titled “Who it Impacts?”

  3. If this Linux distro conquers where others have failed then I’m all for it. Gentoo based if I’m not mistaken.

    1. Really? What it is you’re looking for in a “linux distro” then? Apart from running the linux kernel underneath and a few common libraries that you aren’t really able to access, this doesn’t seem to resemble anything I would call a “linux distro”. Far too much baby being thrown out with the bathwater to qualify as a “linux distro” in my eyes.

      If you want another appliance platform, that’s fine, but it’s not got much to do with “linux distros”.

    2. some internet dude giraffian Saturday, June 2, 2012

      Agreed, with Google behind this it stands to ultimately become something very usable. Perhaps in time Chrome OS can be included in the great debate of “Windows vs OS X vs Chrome OS.

  4. The Chromebox looks like a very interesting device, but it kind of sits in a weird place. It’s almost like a Mac mini, indeed, except it’s just a web browser. Who’s going to use 6 USB ports on a web browser, or 3 video ports?

    I wonder which CPU exactly “Intel Core” refers to, and whether there’s any space inside for adding internal storage. If it can reasonably be upgraded into basically a Mac mini, then I could see this being the next “Shuttle PC”. That would be very nifty. (I kind of doubt there’s any internal storage bay, though.)

    As it is, it’s kind of more like the Apple TV: no local storage, just enough power to present video off the network. With USB, Wifi/ethernet, and video ports which can easily be converted to HDMI, it would make a pretty nice HTPC. Unfortunately, it’s not priced for that: if you just want a Netflix box, an Apple TV is 1/3 the price (and doesn’t require an adapter for HDMI).

    My next thought was that they’re shooting for point-of-sale terminals, and that could be a great market (and ripe for disruption), but I’m not sure if it’s even competitive there. An iPad 2 is only $70 more, and doesn’t require you to already have a keyboard, mouse, and display, so it may end up being cheaper.

    The Chromebook is even stranger: at its absolute cheapest, it’s only $50 cheaper than an iPad 2, and the form factor definitely isn’t aimed at POS terminals. Getting the 3G version adds $200 to the price, making it even more expensive than the iPad, and they’re not clear on what the offline situation is.

    This looks like a nice netbook, but netbooks haven’t exactly been doing well against tablets, and I’m not sure it’s nice enough to make people prefer it to a tablet from the industry leader. I would buy a good netbook, but only one with a local OS and storage — otherwise, I don’t see the point of buying that over a tablet.

    If it was well cheaper than an iPad, like $200? Sure, deal. If it had an SSD and could run a full Linux distro? Sure, deal. But as it is now, I’m just not seeing the point.

    1. Jesse

      They don’t talk about what chip they are using and I cannot break into it and find those details. Sorry.

      As for rest of your comment, I think my post outlines how I feel about the device and the market it is going after

    2. Whoa. There’s a lot of misinformation you’re spreading there. $450 is not the “cheapest” Chromebook. It’s the most expensive. The cheapest is around $300. And 3G doesn’t add $200, more like $50. The iPad adds $100. It’s actually the device which charges the most for the addition of a 3G chip.

    3. Torrey Hoffman Jessie Tuesday, May 29, 2012

      I think the point of the Chromebox is for large organizations with thousands of old PCs running XP. They can keep their monitors, keyboards, and mice. They can ditch the dusty old PCs + Windows and all the maintenance costs that go with it. They can everyone into the cloud for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to upgrade to PCs capable of running a modern MS Windows + Office.

  5. If you want to remote control a PC or anything that supports RDP or VNC from a web browser, ThinRDP is the best for that.

  6. Just a heads up, there is text missing at the end of the “Who it impacts?” section.

  7. “Screamingly fast”…”fantastically well” — these impressions are coming from someone who, what, uses a HP Touchpad for daily web business? A netbook launches cached software quickly: Area Dads Impressed. These breathless superlatives could really use a context.

    This is “not necessarily a review” — so it’s a kindasorta review. But it’s also not necessarily coherent writing. Maybe you were literally running out of breath when it came to “Microsoft which needs to sell a lot of these devices in order to [end of paragraph, sic]” and “Bottomline [sic]“. You finish it off with “The ChromeOS and the devices based on the OS have reached a point…It [sic, pronoun agreement] is also benefitting [no sic, just terrible usage] from the fact [of the reality that presently etc.]…”

    Let’s hope Om will be benefitting from a copy editor soon.

  8. Cab Driver Jim Wednesday, May 30, 2012

    I keep getting hung up on the fact that if the Chromebox were an ARM device it would cost under $100. Under $200 for the Chromebook. I don’t think it’s going to be popular until it hits those price points. But perhaps that’s the point for right now. They may not be prepared for a mass market device at this point. There’s also the matter of NaCl tying them to x86 instructions, I suppose. But that’s at least a solvable issue.

  9. Awesome can’t wait to get my hands on a new and improved google Chromebook!

  10. Norman Hartmann Wednesday, May 30, 2012

    Reblogged this on Norman Hartmann's Blog and commented:
    Very interesting read – good analysis. The ChromOS team can be really proud about their progress, this has a lot of potential indeed.

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