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Google plays the long game with Chrome OS

First the kids, then the commercial sector

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Google is betting that slow and steady will prove a winning strategy for its Chrome OS platform, and is reporting some successes for the system in the education sector.

It has been a little over a year since Google first showed off ChromeOS, and around six months since the first commercial systems were released for sale by Samsung and Acer. There’s new hardware scheduled for later this year, but the operating system – indeed the very notion of a browser-based operating system – appears to have found little traction in the wider industry.

However, according to Caesar Sengupta, product management director at Google, the company is playing the long game with Chrome OS, making steady improvements in the system as it stands and letting it find its market.

“As Google we haven’t really pushed these devices yet,” he told The Register. “This is so important to us, we can’t rush it.”

When Chrome OS was first mooted in 2009 it was strongly billed as suitable for the netbook market, which was undergoing a surge in sales at the time. That proved short-lived, and with netbook sales cratering under the combined pressure of the tablet market and low-cost laptops, there’s a bit of reimagining going on.

Sengupta pointed out that many of the web applications upon which Chrome OS relies will be quite hardware-intensive, particularly with modern browsers now supporting hardware acceleration of graphics. That, and the fact that people really don’t like the cramped keyboards that come with netbooks (Chrome systems have a full sized – if slightly altered – keyboard,) shows people still see the value in a full-sized lappy with a little grunt.

However, it’s the education market that seems to be gaining the most traction with Chrome OS. Schools in 41 US states are using Chromebooks, and three states have signed up to take 27,000 units over the next three years. As they are browser-based, there’s much less IT administration to do and a single control panel allows a sysadmin to lock down and easily update such systems – and it helps they’re relatively cheap.

“If we found a zero-day flaw, then it’s relatively quick to patch every Chrome OS system, it’s really a question of getting the bandwidth to put out the fix,” he explained.

This education focus has taken some financial jiggery-pokery. Chromebooks were originally sold on rolling three-year contracts, but many school districts only get an annual IT budget, so now Google will sell them for a larger up-front fee and a minor service charge.

Business however is a tougher nut to crack. Sengupta claimed that there are companies who are trying out the system on specific company niches – such as sales people who take them out on the road – but businesses take a lot longer to commit to new technology, he said, and so Google’s long game strategy may help. The company is also eating its own dogfood, and El Reg did spot an awful lot of Google employees using them over lunch, but not as primary machines.

The big problem here looks, in El Reg’s opinion, to be on the applications side. While there are a lot of great applications out there, there aren’t anywhere near enough of them, and developers - given a choice between Windows, iOS, Linux and Android – will go for the most popular options to increase their revenues.

At Google’s last earnings call Larry Page warned that the winnowing out of the company’s multitude of side projects will continue – but Chrome OS won’t be one of them, Sengupta said. Indeed, the more cutting goes on, the better the project benefits, he remarked.

“Larry, Sergey and Eric have been huge supporters throughout,” he said. “We’ve not felt any lack of support – any reorganization in the company helps us focus on these massive areas.” ®

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