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Google delays Chrome OS, punts brandless beta netbook

World of web heads grapple for 'Cr-48'

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Google has announced that the first Chrome OS netbooks will arrive in "mid-2011" from Acer and Samsung. Originally, the company said that devices would arrive by the end of this year.

But the company has introduced a Chrome OS "pilot program" that offers a beta netbook known as the "Cr-48" to select users. Several businesses and government agencies will test the device with employees, including American Airlines, Kraft, LogiTech, and the Department of Defense, and a few lucky consumers will be randomly invited to the program. Others can lobby for inclusion. At youtube.com/googlechrome, you can submit a video telling the company why you deserve a Cr-48, and you can formally apply for the program at google.com/chromenotebook.

The Cr-48 is unbranded. It offers a 12.1-inch display, full-size keyboard, "oversized" touchpad, webcam, built-in 3G and Wi-Fi, and an SSD drive — Chrome OS is built to run solely on solid-state drives. Google has also done away with caps-lock and function keys.

Sundar Pichai, Google vice president of product management, revealed the black-and-only-black Cr-48 at a press event on Tuesday in San Francisco. He said that Google is still working to perfect the "cloud printing" service that will allow Chrome OS to print across the net, to improve support for cameras and other USB devices, and to iron out bugs.

Demoing a Chrome OS reference machine, Pichai boasted that users can set up the OS in less than 60 seconds "out of the box", and he showed off near-instant boot and resume times. He also demonstrated a service that lets you synchronize your Chrome OS setup across other machines running the Chrome browser, and he showed off a "friends let friends log in" guest mode that lets anyone log into the OS with a private session that's completely isolated from the rest of the machine.

Pichai acknowledged that "computers aren't really useful if they're not connected to the web" — and that's doubly true with Chrome OS. But all Chrome OS networks will ship with built-in 3G hardware, and Google has partnered with leading US wireless carrier Verizon Wireless to provide service. The two companies will provide 100MB of free data per month for two years, and plans are available for additional data starting at $9.99 for a day pass. There are no contracts.

The OS is seamlessly and automatically updated. Pichai said that it offers sandboxing "down to the OS level". And he believes that it will be the first consumer OS to offer verified boot. He's convinced it will be the most secure consumer OS ever shipped.

But it isn't just a consumer OS. Google is also pitching Chrome OS to businesses, and the company has partnered with Citrix Systems to offer a Chrome OS incarnation of Citrix Receiver, the company's remote app and virtual-desktop tool. As revealed by The Reg earlier this year, Google was experimenting with something called "chromoting" — a means of providing remote access to legacy desktop apps. It's unclear how this relates to the Citrix partnership. Citrix Receiver is due on Chrome OS "early next year."

Mountain View first announced Chrome OS in July last year, and the following November it showed off a netbook prototype as it open sourced an early version of the operating system as the Chromium OS project. Just as the Chromium project serves as the basis for Google's Chrome browser, it would seem that Chromium OS is the foundation for Chrome OS. Google engineers have regularly updated the Chromium OS code tree over the past year.

This is in stark contrast to Google's Android mobile operating system, which is developed entirely behind closed doors before being open sourced.

Chrome OS is essentially the Chrome browser running atop a Linux kernel. "Chrome OS is nothing but the web," Pichai said. The browser is the only local application. All other apps must be run inside the browser. Google has an interest in pushing users towards web-based applications, including its Google Apps suites of office tools, but the company also says that Chrome OS is an effort to improve security. Each online app is confined to its own sandbox.

In an effort to shrink the performance gap between web-based and local apps, Google has also equipped Chrome OS with its Native Client plug-in, which runs native code inside the browser. But for many web denizens, it undermines open web standards and the software-development holy grail of "write once, run anywhere".

The uncloaking of the Cr-48 coincides with the opening of the Chrome Web Store, an online storefront for, yes, web-based applications. Chrome Web Store was first announced this past May at the company's annual developer conference in San Francisco, and it opened up an SDK to developers earlier this fall. Pichai demoed several apps already available from the store, including multimedia tools from Sports Illustrated, National Public Radio, and The New York Times. The Times works — to a certain extent — offline, and Pichai reiterated that this will be the case with many apps available from the store.

Amazon announced a Kindle web-based app that lets you browse and read your Kindle books inside a web browser; this will be available early next year. Bizarrely, Electronic Arts said that its Poppit! kids game will not only be available from the Chrome Web Store but will be bundled with Chrome 9.

The Chrome Web Store is now available at chrome.google.com/webstore, and it already offers roughly 500 applications.

At today's press event, Google also showed off the latest incarnation of the Chrome browser. The latest dev build offers Google's "instant" search tool to the browser's "omnibox", a combined address bar and search box. It integrates a sandboxed PDF reader that has Google boasting of fast load times. And it offers additional 3D hardware acceleration via WebGL.

Pichai went on to announce a service similar to Mozilla's Firefox Sync, a means of syncing your browser settings across multiple devices. This would seem to be the same service he demoed when syncing settings across Chrome OS and Chrome. ®

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