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The book of Chrome
Google enters the netbook market

05/19/11
By John Andrews jandrews@hippopress.com



It’s been heading this way for years. We dorks have been clamoring for Google to make an operating system ever since Google became a thing. Android is awesome, but that’s really a product of the Open Handset Alliance — spearheaded by Google, to be sure, but it’s not entirely under their control.

This new thing is all Google’s baby. The Chrome OS makes the browser its whole environment and boots up in eight seconds. It will be shipping on a small number of laptops in the middle of June, and the Internets are totally stoked about it. A lot of the excitement is fueled, naturally, by misunderstandings about just what these Chromebooks are and how they’ll be sold.

Hardware-wise, they’re perfectly ordinary — almost. In a move that could revolutionize Internet communication, Chromebooks have no CAPS LOCK key. Instead, that key has a little magnifying glass, making it a dedicated search button. There’s also a row of keys above the numbers to control things like volume, screen brightness and Web browser navigation; rather than clutter them up with the typical F1 through F12 designations, you only see their hardware control icons. Lastly, the touchpad has no buttons. A tap presumably replaces a left-click, and right-clicks (if those exist in the Chrome OS world) probably use the Alt or Ctrl key plus a tap.

Otherwise, they’re pretty much netbooks. The ubiquitous Intel Atom dual-core processor makes its appearance, as do a webcam on the display bezel and a 16GB solid-state storage drive. There are two initial models, with the one from Samsung offering a 12.1” LED screen with a 1280 x 800 resolution and the Acer sporting an 11.6” LED at 1368 x 768 for a slightly more widescreen look.

Chromebooks will run between $400 and $500. Like other tablets and netbooks before them, there will be Wi-Fi-only models and a slightly more expensive 3G mobile broadband option. You really want the 3G option, though, for two reasons:

1. It’s a cloud-based operating system. It can store a cache of your stuff locally, but it’s designed to be connected.

2. The first 100MB of data transfer each month are free.

No foolin’. 100MB per month isn’t really enough to stream Netflix in a corn field, but it’s plenty to ensure that you can always work on your cloud-based documents and do some Web browsing, even if you’re not in a Wi-Fi equipped area. And if you want more data, well, they’re happy to sell you more.

Consumers pay up front for Chromebooks, but educational institutions and businesses will be paying by the month. Since Chrome OS updates itself automatically and doesn’t use locally installed programs, it’s kind of like outsourcing the IT department. Schools pay $20 per month and businesses $28.

Considering the price of just data plans for smartphones and netbooks, this is where Google is really offering an advantage. And by requiring a three-year contract, Google gets a solid, predictable revenue stream for its free-to-most Web services like Docs and Mail. Because they weren’t making enough money on ads.

Gratuitous plug: An old college chum of mine, Eli Pariser, has written a book called The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You. We all get wrapped up in our own little worlds, but the personalization of Google, Amazon, Facebook and the rest can hem you in even more without you knowing it. Learn all about it at www.TheFilterBubble.com.






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