Google revives ‘network computer’ with dual-OS assault on MS

Chrome OS injects new life into netbooks and thin clients

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One of the great ironies of this year is that Google and Oracle – now owner of Sun and Java – are locked in legal combat. The irony stems from the fact that, even as they bicker, the concept they did more than anyone else to create is back in the limelight. This is what we used to call the thin client, which then morphed into the netbook and now the cloudbook.

In previous iterations, the vision was stymied by the lack of reliable broadband connectivity everywhere, and effectively hijacked by Microsoft. Will the Windows giant, this time around, lose out to the approach conceived by Sun, Oracle and Google – a stripped-down device with long battery life and minimal local storage or apps, connecting for its data and services to the cloud (which we used to call the server)? Google pitched its latest definition of the thin client, with the launch of Chrome OS and a next generation netbook, just after Microsoft shipped its latest – and probably strongest – attempt at finally gaining a position in the mobile world, where the cloud will increasingly have its heart.

The thin client reinvented

Back in 1997, Oracle chief Larry Ellison and Microsoft‟s Bill Gates went head-to-head on stage at a technology conference in Paris, with Ellison unleashing the new approach to computing he had cooked up with Scott McNealy, then head of Sun, and designed to kill the traditional "fat" PC with its growing software, memory and storage burden. Oracle and Sun floated the concept of thin, internet-connected clients and were joined later by Google, with its broad vision of putting every app and every piece of data and content in the cloud, to be accessed by a widening range of always-connected, slimline and mobile gadgets.

“A PC is a ridiculous device. What the world really wants is to plug into a wall to get electronic power, and plug in to get data,” said Ellison at the time.

Back then, the client device was called the "network computer", but it largely failed because of user wariness of letting their data and apps out of their own hands (still a major factor, which sees smartphones gaining ever larger memories), and because always-on connectivity was not available, so the concept was largely chained to the desk. Ellison said at the launch of the network computer: "We'll see hundreds of thousands of machines shipped in the first year. Very quickly, we'll see entire industry move to this model. By the year 2000, NCs will outsell personal computers."

This prediction worked out like most such forecasts for the latest big thing in devices.

But the idea did help shift thinking, and it has been revived multiple times since, each time with greater impact as ubiquitous, broadband-class connectivity inched towards reality, and with it, the notion that the cloud could actually work. We saw Sun's network business appliance Corona in 1998, its Sun Ray consumer device in 2000, and a new Javastation after that. The netbook was the most serious attempt so far in form factor terms. It was conceived as a thin client, with long battery life, high portability and constant connection to the web, but limited local storage and no hard disk.

In reality, there were technical flaws in the plan: the scarcity of reliable multi-Mbps 3G; teething problems with translating the ARM/Linux combination of the smartphone to a larger device; the entrenched position of Windows in the netbook's business base; and the lack of a really workable Linux choice, with Android still immature and geared to small screens. So most netbooks were, in reality, low cost and low power Wintel mini-notebooks with hard drives – useful enough for their portability, but not a radical departure, and strictly a companion product rather than a PC killer.

Chrome OS makes its debut

Microsoft had won again, but the more mobile the cloud becomes, the weaker its advantages are in the evolution of the client. So now we see the NC/netbook concept reinvented again, this time as the cloudbook, running Google‟s new platform, Chrome OS. This could create a two-pronged attack on Windows. One on hand, Android on phones, and moving towards larger screened tablets and other devices with the release, next year, of version 3.0 or Honeycomb. And on the other, Chrome OS, initially for keyboarded products, mainly a new generation of netbooks – and looking towards a whole new breed of devices, with various form factors, but all basically providing a browser appliance for optimised access to cloud services and streamed content.

Google showed off the first tablets running Chrome OS this week, a year after first announcing its second operating system. The search giant has often sent mixed messages about where its new platform fits – a rival to Windows on netbooks; a base for a whole new class of web-oriented devices; an alternative to Android more in tune with its carrier-free, open web vision. The answer is probably that it will be all three, in time, but for now its initial aims are to attract a strong developer community, preferably from Windows, and to get the netbook concept back on its cloudy track, and away from Microsoft.

The initial Chrome OS devices look like netbooks, and the aim seems to be to evolve that form factor into something that can regain hype lost to the tablet, and firmly geared to always-on cloud/browser services. The resulting cloudbook or Chromebook is yet another product that, like tablets and smartphones, could boost overall use of web services (and adverts).

The first hardware demonstrated was a prototype, called CR-48 – just a plain unbranded netbook that developers and partners can use. The actual notebooks and netbooks promised by Acer, Samsung and others are now delayed until mid-2011, at least six months later than originally expected.

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