Google to Debut Chromebooks Next Month

Can laptops that do little more than access the Web compete with traditional computers?

Next month, Google will attempt to reinvent the personal computer as little more than a browser and a screen and a keyboard. On June 15, the first lightweight Chromebook laptops, which run the company’s Web-centric operating system, Chrome OS, will be available to buy from Samsung and Acer. Google hopes that every category of computer user—home users, businesses, and educational institutions—will buy in to a vision of computing that does away with locally installed software and instead accesses everything through a Web browser.

Web only: Sasung’s forthcoming “Chromebook”.

Google previewed Chrome OS late last year, and gave out notebooks designed to run the operating system in December 2010.

Samsung will sell a laptop with a 12.1-inch screen for $429 dollars, or $499 with built-in 3G wireless. Acer’s more lightweight 11.6-inch Chromebook will also be available in two versions, the cheapest being $349. See Google’s Web page about the Chromebooks.

Google’s product manager for Chrome OS, Sundar Pichai, announced the plans at the final day of the company’s annual I/O conference in San Francisco. Pichai suggested that the new Chromebooks will eliminate many of the headaches that users associate with personal computers. “Just to spend your time on the Web today,” Pichai said, “you have to deal with all of the legacy decisions made about operating systems in the last 30 years.” That means dealing with slow startup times, nagging software  upgrades, and security problems, he said. “We wanted to distill [the PC] down to nothing but the Web.”

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The two new computers being introduced next month will power on almost instantly, said Pichai, and offer a much smoother experience. “Every time you boot up, you’re up and running within eight seconds, and when you open the lid on a sleeping Chromebook, you’re connected to the Web faster than you can move your fingers to the keyboard.”

Throwing out large parts of the operating system also enables longer, cell-phone-like battery life that lasts all day, he said. Pichai even claimed that a Chromebook purchased next month will become more powerful over time. “Computers are normally great when you first install, but then performance degrades over time,” he said. “But because a Chromebook upgrades itself automatically, in a few months your Chromebook will be even faster.”

Chrome OS shares the code it uses to handle Web pages with Google’s Chrome browser, which is automatically updated to make it perform faster. Pichai showed a version of the popular phone and tablet game Angry Birds, which ran smoothly through the browser following recent improvements to Chrome’s handling of animations.

The predecessor to the two computers announced today, a prototype called the Cr-48, was sent to hundreds of thousands of people who volunteered to test the hardware as part of a pilot program. Google’s willingness to share an early version of Chrome OS revealed some of the drawbacks of Google’s simplified approach to the PC.

Some of the issues identified through the pilot have been fixed for Chrome OS’s commercial debut: the devices have a file manager and can handle storage devices like USB drives and digital cameras; they can play MP3 music files and video files downloaded from the Web; problems with the trackpad’s performance have also been resolved.

Yet some limitations remain. Google has developed technology that allows websites and services to operate offline, but few providers have taken advantage of them. Even Google’s Gmail, calendar, and document-editing Web apps won’t work offline until later this summer. Printing using a Chromebook is possible, but is significantly more complicated than with a conventional computer.

Google will make the new Chromebooks available to businesses and educational institutions next month, via a subscription package that bundles leased computers with support. Business customers will pay $28 per user per month, while the education package will be just $20 per month. Chrome’s security features—all data on a Chromebook is encrypted by default—and its simplicity compared to a conventional machine may be major selling points to organizations that must juggle hundreds or thousands of machines. At I/O, Pichai also previewed a desktop Chrome OS device—dubbed a Chromebox—made by Samsung that will be targeted at businesses and can drive multiple monitors.

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