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Google 'Chromebooks' Line of Notebooks Coming June

Google unveiled "Chromebooks," a new line of notebook devices that will run its Chrome operating system, on Wednesday, at the close of the Google I/O 2011 conference in San Francisco.

Chromebooks will become available on June 15 in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, with other markets to follow. The Chromebooks models will be produced by Samsung and Acer and sold through Amazon.com and Best Buy, according to Google.

As of this writing, Amazon's store indicates the 11.6-inch Samsung Chromebook Series 5 and the 11.6-inch Acer Wi-Fi Chromebook became available on May 11 (which may be a mistake). Best Buy's online store doesn't provide an availability date; instead, people can sign up to get an alert when the Chromebooks can be purchased.

The Samsung models will be priced at about $429 for the Wi-Fi model or $499 with 3G mobile access, according to a Twitter post by Michael Gartenberg, an industry analyst at Gartner. Google describes the 3G option as enabling users to access the Web more broadly, or wherever 3G cell phone service is available. Web access is crucial to Chromebooks because that's where applications are accessed by users. The initial pilot of Chromebooks, announced in December, used Qualcomm's Gobi modems to get Internet access across mobile service provider networks.

Google conceives of Chrome OS as a Web-based operating system, but it apparently has some sort of Linux kernel. The main idea of Chrome OS is to access applications lodged in the Internet cloud. Applications can't be installed on a Chromebook. With that approach, Chrome OS promises to be different from Windows, which supports both installed applications and access to Web services.

It's not clear if Chromebooks would be able to handle software with a high dependence on hardware capabilities, such as the Adobe Creative Suite graphics software. Google's announcement claims that "With HTML5 and other open standards, web applications will soon be able to do anything traditional applications can do, and more." Google isn't alone in that view. Microsoft's top expert at the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), Paul Cotton, also agrees.

"We've not had anyone come to the HTML Working Group and say: 'I want to develop the following kind of web-based app,' and indicate some feature that is missing from HTML5," Cotton said, according to an April V3.co.uk story. Cotton is Microsoft's director of Web services standards strategy and is also co-chair of the W3C's HTML Working Group.

Offline Access
Google, which offers its Google Apps suite of Office-like applications, accessed over the Internet cloud, has also found a way to enable some of those applications to work offline. Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product management, told Google I/O attendees on Wednesday that the company has been running offline versions Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar for three months. The company plans to roll out that capability sometime this summer to all users.

Offline access represents a major advance, as Google scaled back efforts associated with its Gears offline development platform in February. According to a Google blog post at that time, the company revamped its offline access efforts to make them compliant with HTML 5 Web standards. Google's breakthrough in bringing forward offline access for its apps could somewhat diminish the local install advantage claimed by Microsoft with its Office suite, which now offers Web app capabilities along with offline desktop access.

Chrome OS: Better Than Windows?
Google boasts that its Chrome OS bypasses legacy procedures tied up with older operating systems (such as Windows), allowing speedier boot-ups for users. Google also claims stronger controls over security, with the ability to return the Chromebook to its last-known good state should things go wrong. That's enabled in part by a verified boot process tied to the device's firmware.

Google also promises to improve security via "process sandboxing." Chrome browser plug-ins are run as separate processes and checked in the sandbox, according to the company's "Security Overview" document. Google claims that no anti-virus software needs to be installed on Chromebooks, and it probably can't be installed anyway since all applications live in the Internet cloud. All user data get encrypted, but they are still accessible even if users lose their Chromebook because the data are stored in the cloud.

Google is targeting Chromebooks toward the consumer market, but it also announced a service plan to address business and education users and IT management concerns. The Chromebooks for Business and Education service enables a "cloud management console to remotely administer and manage users, devices, applications and policies," according to Google's announcement. Subscriptions will be offered on a monthly recurring basis at $28 per user for businesses and $20 per user for schools.

Business Adoption Prospects
Will businesses run to take up Chromebooks? Gartenberg was somewhat skeptical.

"It depends of the business and the application," Gartenberg said in a phone interview. "Google is putting its stake in the ground for their vision of computing, but it's not something that I think we are going to see for wide-scale adoption anytime in the short term." He noted that there is a lot of functionality that users require that "goes far beyond the Web browser."

Al Hilwa, program director for applications development software at IDC, sees a more hybrid approach going forward.

"I think the business model of selling hardware as a subscription is interesting and potentially will generate interest," Hilwa stated in an e-mail. "The issue is whether consumers are comfortable being completely dependent on the cloud. [It] seems to me that the viability of these machines pivots on that. There is no doubt that we will see more and more things done in the cloud over time but I see this as an incremental transition with hybrid architectures being the norm for a long time to come. Of course not running traditional PC apps is another issue which will narrow the scope of these machines."

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