Chrome OS and Android: Questions, Questions, Questions

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Google's Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook

It's been an exceptionally eventful week for news about the future of Google's operating systems. On Monday night, I attended the opening session of the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital: Dive Into Mobile conference in San Francisco, cohosted by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. It featured a meaty conversation with Andy Rubin, the father of Android. Then yesterday, I took a side trip from Dive Into Mobile to go to Google's Chrome event, which ended with details on Chrome OS's rollout. (The Chrome OS notebooks that were supposed to go on sale this holiday season have been postponed until the first half of 2011, but Google is launching a pilot program based around a test Chrome OS device called the Cr-48.)

Both events answered some of my questions about what's next for Google's OSes, but they also left me asking new ones. Here they are-starting with ones relating to Chrome OS, since we learned more about it than we did about the next generation of Android.

Nine Chrome OS Questions

When I attended Google's first Chrome OS event, back in November of 2009, I left pretty skeptical about the whole idea. This time I left...well, at least a little less skeptical than I went in. Google is trying to address some of Chrome OS's potential dealbreakers-most notably, "How do I use a cloud-based OS when I can't get to the cloud?" And the success of the iPad and Galaxy Tab show that millions of people are willing to pay meaningful amounts of money to buy computing devices that don't run operating systems that have been around for decades.

What happened to all those Chrome OS hardware partners?

A year ago, Google said that Acer, Asus, HP, and Lenovo were on board for Chrome OS. Today, it announced that Acer and Samsung would release products in the first half of next year, with more manufacturers to follow. Maybe Asus, HP, and Lenovo are still gung-ho about the project, but I didn't hear their names mentioned today. (I wonder if HP would now prefer to build any machine along these lines using its own Web OS?)

What other types of Chrome OS devices might be on their way?

Google's new blog post on Chrome OS says that "Chrome OS is designed to work across a wide range of screen sizes and form factors, enabling our partners to deliver computing devices beyond notebooks." The company is also saying that it's focusing on Android, not Chrome OS, for tablets. So what does that leave-desktops? With Google TV already out there and based on Android, is there any chance that Google will unveil a Chrome OS TV box?

Will Verizon's bundled wireless data start a trend?

The coolest thing about Chrome OS notebooks is that they store everything in the cloud. It's also the biggest gotcha. So the news that Verizon Wireless will be offering contract-free 3G access for Chrome OS device owners is a big deal-especially the part about every Chrome OS buyer getting 100MB of data a month for free. 100MB isn't enough to let you use your laptop anywhere and everywhere without thinking about it, but it'll help. I'd love to know the economics of the deal-is Google subsidizing wireless access to make Chrome OS more appealing? And will anyone else respond with similar offers for other laptops, tablets, or other devices?

How useful will a Chrome OS netbook be without Internet access?

Last year, Google didn't seem that interested in making Chrome OS useful sans Internet. Yesterday, it showed Google Docs working in an offline mode (apparently not based on Google Gears). It also explained that some apps from the Chrome Web Store, such as the New York Times' one, will work without a connection. But I'm still not clear just how much you'll be able to do when you're not online.

How much will Chrome OS notebooks cost?

We still don't know-and neither do Google and its hardware partners, presumably, since prices for the Acer and Samsung models will be set closer to their release. How much would the Cr-48 cost if Google were charging for it rather than giving it away? Here's a guess, although I haven't seen detailed specs: $449.

Will Chrome OS notebooks compete with the iPad?

They might, but when you think about it, they're radically different approaches to the future of computing. Chrome OS netbooks have an extremely traditional form factor, can't run local apps, and store everything in the cloud. The iPad has an extremely untraditional form factor, runs local apps by the boatload, and doesn't store much of anything in the cloud unless you go out of your way to do so.

Will other browser companies build browser-based OSes?

Chrome OS already has a little competition-startup Jolicloud has built a minimalist OS of its own, and Splashtop has long offered a browser-centric OS that PC makers build into systems as a Windows alternative. But will any other big browser company go head-to-head with Chrome OS? Let's see: I can't imagine that Internet Explorer OS or Safari OS is on its way. And while Firefox OS and Opera OS sound at least slightly more plausible, the fact that Google failed to meet its original deadline proves that turning a browser into an operating system isn't a cakewalk. I'm guessing Chrome OS will remain unique, at least until other companies have a chance to gauge whether it's catching on.

Just who is Chrome OS for?

I started out thinking it was for clueless-newbie consumers who didn't need anything very fancy and might be intimidated by the work involved in learning and maintaining a PC or a Mac. But the emphasis at this week's event seemed to be on business types (a representative from Citrix was onstage to show Chrome OS accessing enterprise applications) and the power geeks who will be eager to get their hands on the Cr-48. I can't quite tell whether Google hasn't given that much thought to its target audience...or whether the target audience, as with Windows, is everybody.

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