MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--There's still an awful lot about Google's Chrome OS project that remains up in the air, but Thursday's demonstration did reveal a bit about how Google thinks the Netbook should evolve.
At an event here Thursday, Google showed off the browser-based operating system for the first time since announcing it in July. Chrome OS won't be available for consumers to purchase for about a year, although developers can get started playing around with the source code as of today, thanks to the open-source release of the code.
Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management at Google, took about 50 members of the press through a basic tour of Chrome OS that didn't reveal a whole lot more about what was already known about Google's plans for the operating system. The basic look-and-feel of the software greatly resembles the Chrome browser, as expected, and it's designed to provide a fast lightweight computing experience for Netbook users.
But Google did provide some glimpses of what it thinks a Netbook should resemble. For one thing, it plans to develop a detailed specification of hardware components that Chrome OS Netbook makers must adhere to in order to use the operating system.
"We really want software to understand the underlying hardware," Pichai said. Whether he intended to or not, with that statement he revealed that for Google, reinventing the personal computing experience is about more than the software.
How so? Google seems to agree with a fair amount of Netbook users--not to mention Apple COO Tim Cook--that current Netbooks with cramped keyboards and small touch pads aren't going to cut it in the long run. Pichai did not provide specific details, but hinted that users could expect Chrome OS Netbooks to have slightly larger keyboards and screens than some of the current models for sale.
Chrome OS will run on either x86 or ARM processors, giving hardware manufacturers some choices as to how they want to build their systems. But they will have to use solid-state drives based off of flash memory, presumably for performance and reliability reasons, although they won't have to use a lot of memory because Chrome OS is designed to start most data in the cloud with very little local storage.
These Netbooks will be designed with 802.11n Wi-Fi chips in mind, Pichai said. However, a device such as this--designed almost exclusively for online use--may not be as compelling if users are stuck bouncing from Wi-Fi hotspot to Wi-Fi hotspot.
Pichai refused to reveal specific plans for wide-area wireless networking support in Chrome OS Netbooks. WiMax is a conceivable option, but Google hasn't sounded very enthusiastic about WiMax lately. Android chief Andy Rubin recently told CNET that Google is planning that project around LTE, the 4G standard preferred by three of the four major U.S. wireless carriers, and Google declined to participate in the last funding round for Clearwire, in which it has already invested $500 million.
But after the event concluded, Pichai did confirm that Google has at least been talking with wireless carriers about the possibility of supporting Chrome OS Netbooks. This could involve the sale of Chrome OS Netbooks along with two-year wireless data contracts, or some newer form of open access to those networks.
Near-ubiquitous wireless seems like a no-brainer for a device like a Chrome OS-based Netbook, but it raises all sorts of business-model questions about the project. Those details won't likely emerge until Google gets closer to releasing the operating system to its hardware partners but how Google chooses to work with carriers will play a very interesting role in how useful Chrome OS devices turn out to be.
So what might a Chrome OS-based Netbook cost? Google, to no one's surprise, isn't saying. Pichai did say that users could expect to see Netbooks around the current pricing models for systems in the market today, but didn't want to make a prediction because of how component prices can change in a year and in any event Google's hardware partners will likely pay different amounts for their components, depending on the contract they negotiate with suppliers.
But Chrome OS presents some interesting opportunities for Netbook makers. For one, they won't have to pay to use the operating system, unlike the current model where they pay Microsoft for Windows-based Netbooks. Linux Netbooks are out there, but they haven't made as much of an impact with consumers as the Windows versions.
With the release of Windows 7, Microsoft is believed to be charging Netbook makers more for the basic version of that operating system than it did for Windows XP, squeezing their margins even further than they had already been squeezed in taking on the challenge of building a $300 to $500 system that can run a wide variety of software.
Microsoft declined to comment on the prices it charges Netbook makers for Windows 7. "Microsoft does not publically disclose OEM pricing agreements. In the long-run, however, it's up to the OEM to decide end-consumer pricing for preinstalled hardware," the company said in a statement.
Google's approach will also allow hardware makers to balance the cost savings on the operating system with higher-performing features like solid-state drives and larger screens that could also allow for a greater markup. Microsoft, by contrast, requires that Netbook makers that want to use Windows 7 Starter limit the processing power and size of their Netbooks, which encourages Netbook makers that want to offer more powerful components to ship those systems with the more profitable Windows 7 Home Premium.
Google is a year away from giving its partners the go-ahead to release Chrome OS-based Netbooks, and it's not ready to talk about the companies that may or may not be lining up to do so. But it's not hard to imagine that current Netbook makers will take a long hard look at Chrome OS, and that wireless carriers will also be intrigued about a device that's designed for always-on data networking.
As he was mobbed by reporters following Google's presentation, co-founder Sergey Brin downplayed the competitive aspects of Google's Chrome OS project, saying the company was really focused on improving the computing experience for users.
But make no mistake, Chrome OS is a shot across the bow of the fastest-growing product in the PC market today: the Windows Netbook.