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We often joke Google (s GOOG) is like the old Microsoft (s MSFT) — 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(s aapl). The Chromebook starts at $449 while the entry-level price of Chromebox is $329.
They both are powered by Intel(s intc) 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(s nflx) 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(s ctxs) client and access Windows(s msft) 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 (s AAPL) 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.
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.