Is there space for yet another operating system in the marketplace besides Windows, Mac OS X and the many flavours of Linux? Google certainly thinks so, and over the next six months we’ll see a number of laptops launch running Google’s own “Chrome OS”. This shouldn’t be confused with Google’s cross-platform browser, also called Chrome. Chrome OS is actually an offshoot of Linux, so much so that there’s an open source derivative version, Chromium that can be downloaded and run on pretty much any hardware you throw at it. Google’s own officially-branded notebooks running the Chrome operating system will have specific hardware requirements and be known as Chromebooks.
Chromebooks will differ from the regular laptop in a way that’s not all that surprising given Google’s focus on online applications. They’re primarily cloud-based, which means the majority of data a Chromebook will access will be stored online, with minimum quantities of onboard storage. As shouldn’t be a shock, Google’s own applications are front and centre, with the key experience intended to be similar to that of running everything in a browser, all of the time. Online access also means that onboard processing power will be kept low, although this cutting down of storage and processors hasn’t led to price drops for the first run of Chromebooks, expected to launch overseas mid-June. They’re priced at the same kinds of prices you’d pay for a netbook running Windows right now. To remain competitive, they’re probably going to have to drop prices a touch, especially in Australia where online data costs could quickly make a Chromebook a rather costly option.
While the big name vendors such as Samsung and Acer will start selling Chromebooks overseas very soon now, there’s actually a locally produced laptop available right now running Chrome”¦ of a sort. Local online retailer Kogan announced the “world’s first” laptop powered by Google’s “Chromium” operating system back on the 3rd of June. The choice of words in describing it is undeniably rather deliberate; Kogan’s effort isn’t a Google-stamped Chromebook, but running on the open source Chromium variant instead. That could have implications down the track for updates and security, as part of Google’s pitch for Chromebooks is that they’ll update automatically (based on a common hardware profile) while the open source Chromium variant is dependant on open source developers continuing to improve the code, which they may or may not do. I’ve not yet had a chance to slap one of Kogan’s Chromium-based laptops onto my test bench to assess if it’s any good or not, however.
This still leaves the question quite open as to whether ChromeOS will actually capture the attention of consumer buyers. There’s been a definite shift in recent years towards cloud-based applications. Google’s the obvious poster child, but even Apple’s getting into the game with the launch of its iCloud service. Lightweight inexpensive netbooks have enjoyed reasonable sales, but they’re also being pinched by easy to use Tablets, including those running Google’s own Android operating system. Despite appearances, not everything Google releases automatically turns to gold. Its Wave online real-time collaboration product was launched with considerable hype, but failed to gain the attention of the broader market; Google’s essentially ditched Wave, as it has other products that haven’t taken the way the company intended to.