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

Chrome OS injects new life into netbooks and thin clients

Verizon muscles in

As with Android smartphones, Verizon Wireless has seized the initiative and strengthened its deepening ties with Google. It will provide the embedded 3G connectivity for all Chrome notebooks and netbooks, at least in the first phase, offering each user 100Mbytes of free data per month for two years. There will also be various plans on top of that, including a $9.99 day pass. In many ways, this is the most interesting aspect of the launch, pushing the embedded wireless model, in which carriers are so interested, a step further – but it certainly does not reveal a Google that is achieving its aim of ending dependence on entrenched cellcos.

Other features of the OS include the ability to have several user IDs on the same machine, plus a guest mode with "incognito" or private browsing. Set-up, log-in and user interface are the same on all Chrome devices because everything is synced in the browser.

For security, always a delicate issue in cloud-based devices, the browser is tied directly to the hardware with auto updating, sand-boxing at the OS level, and encryption of user data by default. There is also a "Verified Boot" feature that ensures the OS is in the read-only firmware of the computer, so no software can modify it. Google claims this is "the most secure consumer operating system that's ever been shipped."

The Chrome Web Store is now live, and apps from The New York Times, Electronic Arts and Citrix were all demonstrated at the launch, as well as one from Amazon, despite its head-to-head battle with Google over ebooks. The new stores sees a revival of the Google Checkout payment system for click-and-pay downloads. When Google went over to PayPal for Android, it was thought Checkout, which has seen limited uptake, was on its way out. Chrome Web Store is optimised for the Chrome browser but will work with other browsers too.

The attack on Windows

Over time, new device categories will be designed for Chrome OS and a year from now, some of its disruptive potential could be on view. For now, Google is playing it fairly safe, despite the anti-Windows agenda, which will require more radical thinking once the platform is established. One Google executive with high hopes on this front is Linus Upson, VP of engineering and head of the Chrome browser project, who recently claimed that 60 per cent of businesses could immediately replace their Windows machines with computers running Chrome OS. He also said he hoped this would put corporate systems administrators out of work because software updates would be made automatically over the web.

Like Ellison's claims for the NC, such views are almost certainly overblown. But it is noticeable that the software experience has now taken the helm in driving new device types. It is Google now in the hot seat, rather than Sun with its Javastations.

Along with the spread of fast wireless networks, the rise of open web software technologies have been most important in making the NC concept viable – not changes in hardware design, which have not gone much further than removing the physical keyboard (sometimes) and shrinking the screen of a PC. This emphasis on web software puts Google into a powerful position – and potentially Oracle because of Java, but Sun has allowed Java, over the years, to lose its pre-eminence as the cross-platform, thin client framework. So the emergence of Ajax, HTML5 and the open source LAMP stack have all been more important in creating workable web apps.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt claims to have brought all those trends together with business class performance and security. “Chrome finally broke through architectural frameworks with respect to speed and security. It is now finally possible to build powerful apps on top of a browser platform,” he boasted at the launch.

Logically, of course, the use of web apps, with a browser that can sync personal data, eliminates the need for a specific computer at all. Users can just sign on from any product, driving the adoption, pricing permitting, of multiple browser-based gadgets whose hardware (notably screen size and network type) is geared to various behaviors.

Android moves towards tablets

For now, for more conventional devices that still use a lot of downloads and local processing, Google has Android, and its next frontier will be the tablet.

VP of engineering and Android chief, Andy Rubin, previewed the next generation of tablets. Showing off a Motorola device running Android 3.0 or Honeycomb somewhat stole the thunder from Monday's launch of version 2.3, or Gingerbread. Although 2.3 has better support for larger screens than its predecessors, it is not clear whether it will stretch a decent user experience beyond seven inches, and it is Honeycomb that will bring real optimisation – even for 10-inch displays.

Rubin said Honeycomb, which will ship in the first quarter of 2011, will have APIs that allow applications to be split into multiple views on the same screen.

Each release of Android should improve the experience on large-screen devices, and this will bring new launches into the field. The Motorola product on show may well have been a preview version of the promised slate it is making for Verizon Wireless, which will be integrated with the FiOS IPTV service. It runs on the Nvidia Tegra2 dual-core processor, which is scoring strongly in next generation tablets, and is geared to video content and video chat support. LG is also expected to release its first Android tablet in Q111, once Honeycomb is ready.

So this begs the question of whether tablets, as well as cloudbooks, could eat away at the traditional PC. So far, small-screen tablets like Dell Streak and Galaxy Tab behave mainly like enlarged smartphones, while large-screen versions such as iPad have the potential to be used instead of PCs for some tasks (but mainly ones PCs aren't very good at – anything involving touch, of course, plus viewing videos or books). They are not really replacements for the PC in business tasks that are heavily driven by a keyboard, and though they are likely to take the notebook's place in emerging economies – and in functions for which the PC was not well suited to start with – in the first generation they remain companion devices.

Can tablets eat into PCs?

In the medium term, though, some believe they will start to cannibalise the PC market – big PCs that is, not just netbooks, whose popularity as the leading companion device has already been eclipsed by the tablet. This means the tablet becoming the primary computer rather than an additional luxury. Gartner analyst George Shiffler is one of many who believes that, despite the hype, tablets will not kill the PC. He thinks they will displace about 10 per cent of the total by 2014 because the newer form factor will still lack extensive content creation and document production facilities.

Shiffler says tablets will primarily cut into market share for PCs that were designed specifically for on-the-go data use such as netbooks and small notebooks – though a touchscreen cloudbook could reverse this trend.

In its own study, Citigroup said 20 per cent of US and UK consumers wanted tablet-specific features such as touchscreens, but most wanted their next computer purchase to include more PC-oriented elements such as Windows and physical keyboard. Only 14 per cent said they would consider a tablet as their next device purchase, and then not usually as a PC replacement. Also, while 75 per cent of those currently considering a tablet said they would buy an iPad, 52 per cent of the total base really wanted a tablet running a Microsoft OS, and 40 per cent wanted one made by Sony, which has not launched yet. However, according to DisplaySearch analysts, if the iPad is categorised as a mobile PC rather than an oversized iPhone, Apple is now the largest mobile PC vendor in the US, with 12.4 per cent share of third quarter shipments. Within that figure, the iPad accounted for two-thirds of Apple's sales in this category – or 8 per cent of the total segment – with the MacBook Air the other contender.

In emerging economies, the iPad will have tougher challenges, as the iPhone has. This is partly because of its pricing, but also content. Hidetoshi Himuro, director of IT market research at DisplaySearch, said in a statement: "Localised content in non-English speaking regions is sparse, and iPad owners must have a PC for downloading content from iTunes. As a result, penetration in developing regions will be slow."

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