| SAN FRANCISCO
SAN FRANCISCO Google Inc's closely watched foray into computer operating systems could speed the development of a new class of cheaper laptops and dramatically advance the netbook paradigm of Web-based computing.
Computers running Google's less-demanding Chrome OS should be even leaner, simpler and more inexpensive than the already no-frills netbooks that have flooded the market in past years.
In a sign of things to come, some analysts have begun using terms such as "thin client" and "Web appliance" to describe Chrome PCs, likely a year away from store shelves.
Still, whether consumers will grasp and be comfortable with Chrome laptops is the big question. But if they gain traction -- likely on second PCs and on portable "tablet" computing devices -- they could change the way people use computers.
"A lot of stars have to align to make this product really successful, but it's possible," said IDC analyst Richard Shim.
"For folks to get it, it would have to be inexpensive to attract attention, and usage-specific for consumers to understand it."
Google recently gave the press its first peek at Chrome, which it will offer for free to challenge Microsoft Corp, whose Windows runs on nine out of 10 computers.
Chrome is being designed for speed and ease, and will boast super-fast boot times. It is a browser-based system that runs only Web applications, instead of those installed on the PC.
It will not support hard drives. On a Chrome platform, data is primarily stashed online, though some will be stored on the PC via flash memory. That means Web access is a must and widely used programs such as Apple's iTunes or Microsoft Word in their current form won't work on Chrome PCs.
"Where Chrome OS is interesting is in secondary PCs," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata said last week. "Over time as networks get better, get ubiquitous, get faster, more and more things can be accessed through a browser."
Though it's too early to say for certain, the cheaper class of laptops might spur yet more price-based competition for an industry struggling to prop up margins in many major markets.
Haff estimated a Chrome device would cost substantially less than some current netbook models, after eliminating the cost for Windows and a hard drive. Many netbooks are currently priced in the $300-$400 range.
FUTURE OF COMPUTING?
No one is claiming that Chrome is for everyone, but Google argues that because consumers mainly use their PCs for Internet tasks, their software should be rooted in the Web.
"Is that a new paradigm? I think it is," said ABI research analyst Jeff Orr. "It's pretty much changing the way people use their machine."
Orr said markets like Western Europe, where netbooks first caught on and which has good broadband connectivity, should be more receptive to Chrome PCs.
"The first step is going to be awareness, letting people know that this is an experience that will be different... Beyond that it's going to be more of a function of building trust."
Google has said it was working with PC vendors including Hewlett-Packard and Acer, and chipmakers such as Texas Instruments and Qualcomm to build Chrome devices.
Upward of 30 million netbooks are expected to be sold this year in a category that didn't exist a few years ago. With low-power processors and limited memory, the devices are mainly good for simple tasks such as Web browsing and email.
The vast majority of netbooks run Windows and feature Intel chips, and many have sizeable hard drives.
Linux-based systems are available on netbooks, but analysts say consumers have been reluctant to use Windows alternatives.
Chrome would certainly represent a change from the familiar Windows environment. It will look like a browser and run from the cloud (a network), where Web applications such as Google Docs and the photo-sharing site Flickr can replicate some of the things that locally installed programs do.
Google said Chrome will run on both Intel Corp's x86 chip platform or ARM chips, which are the standard in smartphones but are starting to turn up in netbooks.
Windows PC operating systems don't currently work on ARM chips, so Chrome could provide a boost to the fledgling ARM netbook category, analysts say.
A product that just hit the market provides a glimpse at what a Chrome PC might look like. Boston-based start-up Litl has released what it calls a "Webbook," a simple laptop with limited storage. The product has generated buzz, but its $699 price tag makes it relatively expensive.
The Litl operating system is focused on the browser. Users keep their content organized on a series of cards.
"We decided to do a fresh take on what a computer would be like if it was totally for and of the Web," Litl founder and Chief Executive John Chuang said in an interview last month.
(Editing by Edwin Chan; editing by Carol Bishopric)