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Market for Chrome OS Netbooks: Rusty

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Rumors of devices running Google’s Chrome (s goog) operating system are picking up steam, with the latest coming from DigiTimes, which reports several vendors will debut Chrome OS netbooks with ARM (s armh) processors before the end of this month. Google (s goog), too, may introduce its own branded computer, although such a device would compete with partners and likely suffer the same fate as Google’s Nexus One smartphone, which is no longer sold direct from Google to consumers in the U.S. Last year, Google announced Chrome OS devices for the second half of 2010, so it’s highly likely the rumors are true. The problem: The mobile computing landscape has changed since that announcement, causing me to wonder if there’s really a need for Chrome OS devices, or if Android has already won the day.

Who wants a netbook these days? Part of my Chrome OS device pessimism stems from the netbook market. As Google shared details of the new platform throughout 2009, netbooks were selling like gangbusters with year-over-year sales growth often over 179 percent. But the growth rate stalled late last year to practically no growth by April 2010 as shown by a Fortune chart comprised with data from NPD and Morgan Stanley Research.

Chrome OS devices might be called smartbooks instead of netbooks, but it won’t matter to consumers who will compare them to netbooks based on price, form factor and functionality.

There was no iPad nor credible consumer tablets last year. Another timing issue for Chrome OS is the emergence of Apple’s iPad (s aapl) and the many Android consumer tablets that are following suit, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. I don’t believe the iPad single-handedly dismantled netbook sales, but it surely had an impact and continues to do so. The $499 starting price of an iPad Wi-Fi model isn’t that much more than some netbooks, and its generally faster and lighter. Plus, it provides a great experience for web and other content consumption. A Google Chrome OS netbook might excel at content creation, but given the limitation of a machine that only runs a browser and web apps, not enough to challenge tablets or even current netbooks.

Consumers like rich mobile apps. With its rise in Android powered smartphones, Google should know that we’re currently in a hot mobile app economy. Given that Google Chrome OS is essentially a browser atop a Linux kernel and will run web apps, how will consumers enjoy the app experience? Google introduced the Chrome Web Store back in May, but it’s not open yet, so we can’t see how robust the apps will be. While there is a future for such rich web apps with HTML5 standards, it’s going to take time before developers leave or augment their current activities for iOS, Android and other mobile platforms.

Android is the winning play. With Android, Google has proven it has a winner in the smartphone space; the platform fills a need both at the high- and the low-end for consumers that don’t want in on Apple’s (s aapl) ecosystem. Although the current version of Android isn’t optimized to compete against the iPad, customizations from hardware makers provide choice in the current tablet market, which will only get better when Google releases future versions of Android specific to tablets. Does it make sense to leverage Android in a netbook then, instead of Chrome OS? That’s no better an idea than Apple moving strictly to iOS for Mac computers in the future; it won’t work in the form-factor of a screen and keyboard because the operating system is suited for touch, not trackpad or mouse, as pointed out by John Gruber. Don’t believe him? Just run some iOS apps on a computer with the iOS emulator and see for yourself.

A browser-based netbook sounded like a good idea to me when it was first announced. At the time, I even said I was the perfect candidate for such a device. Given my meager computing needs, I’ve used both an ultra-mobile PC and a netbook as a primary device in the past, and even lived in nothing but a browser for 60 days on a PC just for the experience back in 2008. (I survived.) But that was well before market forces shifted to mobile apps and capable tablets with excellent browsers that are available at reasonable prices.

Unless Google plans to give away Chrome OS netbooks to consumers, or revamp the idea as a tablet, I’m not sure I see the need for it any more. Then again, everyone has unique device and use case requirements, so I’m interested in hearing thoughts from those who are still looking forward to Chrome OS netbooks and why.

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20 Responses to “Market for Chrome OS Netbooks: Rusty”

  1. I’m tremendously looking forward to ChromeOS netbooks. Reason one: battery life! But then again, I’m not a typical “consumer”.

    It’s become painfully obvious that ARM is better at battery life than x86. I’ve been looking forward to an ARM netbook for years. And manufacturers have been showing them off at trade shows for years, with impressive battery life claims. Strangely, however, nobody ever ships one. (The only thing even close is the “TouchBook”, but it looks kind of funky.) So Google shipping a ChromeOS netbook means I might finally be able to buy one. I just won’t run ChromeOS on it.

    Being from Google, there’s also a chance it’ll be a decently-designed piece of hardware. Not Apple-well, but better than the typical PC netbook, perhaps.

    The big competitor for this space that I see is Apple, who’s making smaller laptops with better batteries. However, almost all of the software I run is either cross-platform, or is easier to run on Linux. I’ve got a Mac I boot into Linux, and I’ve got a Mac that I run Linux on in a virtual machine, and I’ve got apps that grew up on Linux but that I run natively on my Mac, and all of these solutions are kind of awkward. I’m a programmer, and it’s pretty clear that Apple is a consumer/media company now. All of the things that Apple brags about the most these days are things I don’t want to do. I’m also disenchanted with the whole “App Store” situation, both as a developer and as a user (took me 2 weeks on the phone with Apple tech support to install even a *free* iOS app, which is just absurd).

    I’ve also had PC laptops, and they perform OK with Linux, and they’re getting better, but I’ve never seen a laptop that’s great with Linux the way a Powerbook/Macbook is great with Mac OS. If there was a netbook designed to run ChromeOS, then I know it supports Linux really well.

    Again, I don’t think these things apply to most people. I don’t know if ARM or ChromeOS netbooks will be a success in ‘the market’. I’ll just be personally happy if after all these years of empty promises, I’ll finally be able to buy an ARM netbook!

  2. It is a blind man that looks at yesterday and determines that the future is impossible.

    Google’s “life” is made on the premise of as many things as possible happening within a browser. Technically and social limitations demanded that they move slower to an all-Internet framework (Chrome OS) than make that the initial play. Everything in the Android ecosystem (speed of the builds, Internet as delivery and processor of complex items, and lessened carrier/ISP control) point to Android developing into Chrome OS at some point – probably version 5 given the current pace of development with that team.

    *Perceptive folks will notice that this is a similar route Nokia took with Maemo before the partnership with Intel/Moblin for MeeGo. Slow build-up and then overall market/company change.

    For traditional PC form factors – again, the present is being looked at too hard as a barometer for the future. Even the post author notes that its an issue of comfort, not ability, that keeps Chrome OS from being a compelling solution. I’d argue that people with similar perspectives and needs might need to be the ones most marketed to, as others will just take what’s in front of them.

    With the Internet, the platform doesn’t matter. Either the site is on or its not. And if not, there’s a big internet out there. Google is looking to capitalize on that – not being stuck to [mobile] platforms which have notable limitations in reach and profitability.

  3. i see a huge market for a sort of ‘simplified’ computing platforms. especially if it turns out to be very secure from malware and also very easy to reset to factory state if the settings get all screwed up. for a lot of consumers these two things are a major issues that means their computer has to go into a repair shop a couple times a year. and no macs and linux are not the answer for these people. macs are too expensive and linux too complicated.

    the problem i see with chromeOS is i keep hearing about netbook sized devices. i own a small computer shop and deal with the customer i describe above everyday. i can tell you this, none of them like netbooks. they absolutely love giant 17 in. laptops. i believe they would also buy all-in-one(imac style) desktops and really like them.

    Google, please deliver large chromeOS machines for the masses. they would be a huge hit. especially if they are priced significantly cheap than windows machines(which they should be if they have simpler hardware and no microsoft tax)

  4. The concept of Chrome would be an ideal play for emerging markets should Google connect the browser to telephone functionality. A low-end device that very simply connects would be a pretty powerful concept.

    I believe that Chrome and Android will ultimately merge into a unified plan for stripping down an OS to basic needs.

  5. Technovegas

    Android doesn’t support Native Client – a huge limitation. If web applications are to become viable competitors to native applications then they need to access local resources.

    So ask yourself this question – do Google want to bet everything on their app focused walled garden (Android) or do they want to promote a more open system based on web applications?

    The one fly in the ointment is that Mozilla and Opera are dissing Native Client and saying they’ll stick with JavaScript getting faster – so high-performance web applications may never get out of the gate.

  6. There is a large contingent of people that don’t do anything other than surf the web on their computer. But those same people go out buy PCs loaded with Windows 7 not realizing that they don’t need the horsepower or complexity that is inherent to native apps.

    I believe there is a space for Chrome OS, and it will sit firmly between a Windows and Android. Windows is for full functionality computing, and Android is for smartphones.

    There’s no reason to be porting a smartphone OS to a tablet or laptop as has been done with some commercial products already. Which one of those has been successful? None of them.

    Android is for wireless phones, and Chrome OS is perfectly situated to take its place for larger devices that are web-only.

    • “There is a large contingent of people that don’t do anything other than surf the web on their computer. But those same people go out buy PCs loaded with Windows 7 not realizing that they don’t need the horsepower or complexity that is inherent to native apps.”

      Spot on, but then I think it will come down to price. If consumers can buy a netbook for $300 or $400 for browsing, along with the ability to run native apps, then I’m thinking Chrome OS netbooks will have to be priced around $200 because they can’t run native apps. Pricing will be key for adoption, I think.

      • the price issue will indeed be key. these things need to be a lot cheaper than windows machines.

        also please i hope these are not all 3G/4G operator subsidized. that will eliminate the whole bargain segment of the market for whom wifi is just fine and who do not want monthly commitments. also having carriers subsidized versions will likely incentive manufactures to inflate the price on wifi only versions to keep up with the large margins they would make on the subsidized versions.

        google please. cheap wifi only chromeOS machines! and give us big ones not just netbook sized.

      • I’ll second tom’s request for WiFi only ChromeBooks. I’ve just started a small medical office and run a web-based electronic medical record program that runs in Flash. Most employees will be fine with a ChromeOS netbook/tablet or Chromium desktop, saving a “real” OS for a few key positions – medical web sites are notorious for requiring Internet Explorer, assuming that some sort of virtualization isn’t going to be available. As the IT guy in this tiny shop, I like the fact that Chrome is a relatively secure browser with protected memory spaces, and with ChromeOS’ proposed self-repair mechanism it’s a low-maintenance deployment.

        As the netbooks should be cheap without the cost of Windows penalty and HDD, running low batteries isn’t a big deal, just grab another fully charged netbook, login, and keep on going.

    • O you can get iOS for all of your mobile needs without having to mash different OSs for your phone, tablet, media devices and set-top boxes. Plus Apple is doing a lot in the future to unify iOS and OSX which already share the same code base.

      Apple keeps it simple for consumers… unless you’re the kind of consumer that like to spend the extra time mashing different things together.

  7. Jeremiah

    Who wants a netbook these days?

    How about people who don’t want to carry around their full-blown laptop, but want access to a real keyboard for actual content creation?

    You could argue if a netbook with just a browser is enough for you, you won’t be creating much, but then there’s all kinds of web apps out there that are becoming increasingly popular. A touchscreen tablet with an onscreen keyboard, or even a really small keyboard, just isn’t ideal for long periods of typing.

    • Jeremiah, having adopted a netbook in late 2007 and upgrading to two additional ones the next two years, I totally understand your point. But the real keyboard of a netbook is easily replicated as needed for tablets with Bluetooth units. I used one for years with a 7″ slate Windows PC or UMPC, in fact.

      Having said that, yes, an onscreen or software keyboard is less than ideal when creating text input for any length of time. It’s great for short bursts, but not for hours.

  8. The problem with Chrome OS is that it’s kind of moving in 2 directions at once. One direction is very forward thinking – web apps and all that. The other is backward thinking – netbooks, laptops, PC’s. They want to put a very forward thinking OS on a backward thinking form factor.

    Since Chrome OS is “just a browser”, then they should be able to say it offers the “best web experience”. And I’m afraid a netbook can’t offer a better web experience than a tablet. A tablet offers the best web experience, because you have the web literally in your hands and it’s much easier to navigate the web.

    If they wanted to make a real splash with Chrome OS they should’ve made it tablet ready on launch day. Of course, with this idea, you also get the confusion between Android and Chrome OS. Should I get an Android or a Chrome OS tablet? At first glance, an Android tablet sounds like a much better idea, since you have a good enough browser plus apps.

    Here, it depends how much Google differentiated Chrome OS from Android’s browser. First it will have the Chrome webstore, which Android won’t have (for now). Then, it depends if they really made all that local storage and offline caching work. If your Chrome OS devices “saves” most web pages on it, then your browsing should be a lot faster for your regularly visited websites, than it would be on a browser on a PC, or on an Android tablet.

    Another thing – the Chrome OS browser might have MUCH better performance than an Android browser. Rendering speed on mobile browsers are still very slow – like 5-15 seconds for a full web page. Perhaps they managed to make it under 1 second, which would be even faster than on a regular netbook where rendering speed of pages is about 2 seconds.

    But who knows, we’ll have to see. In the end there might not be too many obstacles to bring every advantage that Chrome OS has into Android’s browser and into the PC Chrome browser.

    • Great points – although when talking about mobile browser render speeds, mobile Safari continues to impress me on the iPad. As a Chrome user on the desktop / laptop, however, it will be interesting to see how the browser performance compares in Chrome OS. I suspect it will be similar, assuming Chrome OS devices are ARM like the iPad.

    • Lucian,
      My father does day-trading and was investigating an iPad but it couldn’t handle the use-case where he needed multiple data windows open so he could analyze the market.

      I’m sure in time the iPad will be able to provide that either by a single app that shows 2 or more datasets or iOS managing apps in a split-window fashion (what I was hoping the iPad would do)

      He is still using his notebook, and I don’t see him changing that. There are tons of use-cases where tablets don’t makes sense and Chrome OS netbook would… even content creation.