Why We’ll See Google Chrome OS Devices by Mid-Year

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When Google announced its ambitious plans for Chrome OS on netbooks, any excitement generated quickly fizzled. With a June 2009 announcement of a product not due out until the second half of 2010, momentum isn’t easy to maintain. Many assume that “second half of 2010″ is wide target and may not even mean until the holiday season. But a report out of Digitimes by way of Liliputing indicates that we could see a Chrome OS device sooner rather than later. Facing pressure in the netbook market, Acer is reportedly planning to launch Chrome OS devices by the middle of 2010 — still a wide range, but possibly before most of us anticipated. Although this information isn’t officially backed up by Google, the more I think about it, the more I suspect the timeline has merit.

For starters, Acer is one of the originally named partners that Google is working with for the Chrome OS project. So are Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba. Obviously having Acer on that list doesn’t add major credibility to the DigiTimes report, but if they weren’t listed, you could probably dismiss the news. Sidenote — although Intel is conspicuously absent from the partner list, Google initially said that Chrome OS would be supported on both ARM and x86 platforms. We already know that’s true — I installed a build of Chrome OS as the primary operating system of an x86 netbook back in December.

Speaking of Chrome OS builds, the very place I downloaded mine shows recent activity of late. Last week, “Hexxeh” dropped a brand new build and although it’s not officially from Google, it is built upon the Chromium OS open source efforts that will yield the Chrome OS. So in essence, it offers a glimpse of Google’s progress. I haven’t had a chance to download and install this build yet — I will do that on the same netbook I have running Chrome OS — but I can see features that weren’t there before. Hexxeh’s “Flow” build adds in his own customizable menus for organizing web apps , automatic updates, hardware accelerated support for Nvidia’s ION graphics solution, webcam support and battery life improvements, to name a few.

While I don’t know exactly what the Chromium OS communited added vs what Hexxeh included to the build, I’m not sure I care. Even if all of this was added by one individual — and a 17-year old one, at that! — it means the underlying framework of Chrome OS to support these features is coming along quickly. But is it quickly enough?

The competition that Google’s Chrome OS will face isn’t just the existing netbook market. It’s also the smartbook sector and I’ve argued that Apple’s iPad may have already cornered that market before it really starting to provide shipping products. And those iPads are due to start shipping around the end of next month. Now that Google and its Chrome OS partners know this, do you think they’ll be meandering around and working on products for year end shipping? I wouldn’t if I were them. I’d be trying to build the best mobile environment I could in as little time as possible — exactly what it sounds like Acer is reportedly doing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start hearing announcements from Google’s hardware partners by May, which is one month after the iPad with 3G is due to ship.

If device availability isn’t on Google’s side, at least the pricing should be. I can’t imagine any Google Chrome OS devices costing $499 or more, which is the base model starting price for Apple’s iPad. And price is often a differentiator, although Apple is known as a premium brand and will offer a full application ecosystem with the iPad. Google’s Chrome OS is built on a Linux kernel, but the intended use for the system is for browsing and web-based applications.

As a current or potential netbook / smartbook owner, when do you think we’ll see a Google Chrome OS device? Does the introduction of Apple’s iPad have any influence over what you might buy or do you see that as a completely different type of device?

Image courtesy of Hexxeh

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

The No. 1 Way Chrome OS Will Woo Consumers to the Cloud

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