Who really needs a Chrome OS laptop?

Yesterday in comments, Betanews reader DaveN asked why anyone would make the sacrifices he believes necessary to run a Chrome OS laptop. "If you're going to carry around a device in the laptop format, why would anyone want something so limited?" It's a good question, that necessitates two answers -- one for now and another when the first units are commercially available.

On December 7th, Google announced a pilot program, distributing some 60,000 unbranded Cr-48 laptops running Chrome OS. I expect to receive one for review as early as this week. That's a helluva pilot program, which has me laughing. I don't hear anyone fussing about Google handing out laptops the way they did about Microsoft with Windows Vista. That's some double standard. Microsoft offered bloggers and reviewers free Vista notebooks four years ago this month. Happy Christmas! I publicly supported the Vista program -- "Microsoft's Laptop Giveaway is About Influence Not Bribery" -- even though I didn't get a computer; there was no conflict of interest in my support. Microsoft handed out the notebooks before Windows Vista released. How else were reviewers going to use and test the operating system? Google's situation is similar, with commercial units six months, perhaps more, away.

The ambitious pilot is necessary, but I wonder if it's big enough. Google's Android success is as much about lucky timing as good technology or execution. Chrome OS butts up against Windows and even Mac OS laptops and now media tablets like iPad or the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which runs Android. Then there is the fundamental concept of storage in the cloud and, for the immediate future, missing applications categories.

Google isn't shy about the risks or the lifestyle changes pilot participation might necessitate: "Chrome OS is for people who live on the web. It runs web-based applications, not legacy PC software. The pilot program is not for the faint of heart. Things might not always work just right."

Rain Falling from the Cloud

DaveN wonders who those web dwellers might be. He writes: "I can understand living with the limitations of a smartphone, iPad, or other tablet due to increased portability and easier use while on the go. But if you're going to deal with the inherent limitations of a laptop -- size, weight, keyboard -- why not have something that will run a real app, store data, play a DVD, sync your mp3 player, work without a network connection, etc?" It's a good question for the pilot and future commercial products. The pilot isn't just necessary. It's a necessity:

1. The Cr-48 establishes a base configuration for Chrome OS OEMs. I'm hoping that's bare-minimum config. As I explained in my 11.6-inch MacBook Air review, PC manufacturers need to pay attention to a buyer's initial reaction and ongoing product usage -- that starts with adjusting priorities so they're more about making the customer exclaim "wow" and less about trimming production costs. Windows Phone 7 shows the problem of setting a minimum configuration bar. Microsoft was right to do this, but how did OEMs respond? The first Windows Phone handsets adhere to the minimums and not much more.

2. Chrome OS is a development platform misnomer. Android is hugely successful, with Google now activating 300,000 phones a day -- 27 million a quarter -- and Gartner predicting the mobile operating system will catch Nokia's Symbian by 2014. Android runs on dumb phones, smartphones, ebook readers, tablets and TV settop boxes. There are about 100,000 applications already available. Chrome OS faces as much developer competition, perhaps more, from Android as Windows or Mac OS. If Google is going to credibly make a case for yet another PC operating system -- and one with a cloud-connected approach -- developers have got to experience it firsthand.

3. Google needs more applications. One of Microsoft's newest marketing slogans is "to the cloud," but the benefits aren't divorced from local applications. Google is more ambitious, by shifting computing to the browser, something Netscape wanted to do in the 1990s. Clouds exist to make rain, and right now there is a drought of web applications in some critical consumer and business categories. Google will need developers to fill these if Chrome OS is going to succeed. The Cr-48 pilot makes the case stronger, along with the Chrome Web Store.

4. IT organizations need to evaluate Chrome OS -- now if they're going to deploy second half 2011. Timing is important for another reason: More IT organizations are evaluating Google Docs against newer offerings from Microsoft. Google can make a stronger pitch by offering a more unified stack -- applications and operating system -- much as Microsoft does today with legacy applications stack Office-Windows-Windows Server. Gartner has observed a marked increase in enterprise adoption of cloud computing solutions. "Cloud computing heralds an evolution of business -- no less influential than the era of e-business -- in positive and negative ways," Stephen Prentice, Gartner vice president, said in a statement over the US Thanksgivng holiday. It's not a question of if enterprises are moving to the cloud but to which one(s)?

Who Is It For?

That's the "now answer" to DaveN's question. But what about the future? "If you're going to carry around a device in the laptop format, why would anyone want something so limited?" There is a market for such a device, or underpowered netbooks wouldn't have sold so well over the past two-and-a-half years. Price and size are compelling attributes. Then there is the tablet surge. Gartner predicts that tablets will displace about 10 percent of PC shipments by 2014. I predict that's a way-to-conservative estimate.

Still, DaveN has a point. The Cr-48 is a 12-inch laptop running an Intel Atom processor. By the specs, it's not exactly a sportster. Still, Betanews commenter Neemobeer sees an audience for Chrome OS portables:

Most people on here are not typical computer users. If you think of it from the typical user perspective this is an amazing OS. Think of all the people you know that are average computer users; what do they do 90 percent of the time? Web, email, maybe a little bit of docs and pictures. This is perfect for those people and a great and probably afforable way for them to get in the technology train.

PC_Tool answers: "'Where is Works?!? Where are the MSN and Yahoo! messengers? What? You cannot even install them???!? Where's my Windows Live Mail client? Why can't I find anything on this thing?!?!' Yeah. The average consumer? Doesn't handle frustration well."

Steven Watson (aka swattz101) answers:

Where is Works -- probably an icon to Google Docs on the interface. Where are MSN and Yahoo Messengers -- there are web based versions, and I expect versions to show up in the Chrome App Store. Windows Live Mail client -- there is a link to Gmail where you can have a unified inbox. You can still access your webmail clients, and I would not be surprised if there is eventually some sort of email app added to the Chrome app store. I think something like this would be great for my wife. All she does on our computer is Facebook and Yahoo webmail over our home WiFi network. I doubt she would even use the 3G option much, so 100MB would proabably do ok for her.

This exchange among Betanews readers is enough to show why the Cr-48 pilot is necessary and to wonder about what market niche Chrome OS might fill. The answer to DaveN's question is another and another. Will Chrome OS even be relevant in six months? What about a Chrome OS tablet? Google's operating system kind of made sense when announced two years ago. But in 2011, with smartphones better offering cloud-connected apps, Android crushing rival phone operating systems and tablet sales soaring, will Chrome OS be irrelevant before its official debut? That's a question I hope to answer while testing the Cr-48 over the next couple of months.

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