Google is gearing up for an assault next year on Microsoft's dominance in PC operating systems, yet the companies that would have to be complicit in the battle have little to say about it.
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Judging by their public reactions to Google's news, much of the top tier of consumer PC makers appear caught off guard by, an open-source operating system the company is preparing for launch in 2010. Google specifically noted in its announcement that its operating system would be lightweight enough to work on Netbooks, low-cost mini laptops that almost all PC makers have flocked to in the past year. According to a person familiar with the operating system, Google is talking to Asus, Lenovo, as well as other original equipment manufacturers, and chipset makers about using Chrome OS.
Neither Asus nor Lenovo responded to requests for comment.
It makes sense that Google would target Asus. It's the pioneer of the Netbook movement and dominates the market. But there are other potential partners too, whose names have not come up yet: Acer and MSI. Along with Asus, they've been happy to cut Microsoft at least partly out of the equation of building a computer. The three have led the charge in Netbooks, and while they have offered versions with Windows XP, they also were early to make Linux versions available. Adding Chrome OS as an option would make sense.
But both Hewlett-Packard and Dell, who account for 35 percent of computers sold worldwide, had mostly nothing to say about Chrome OS.
HP said that while it is "studying Chrome," it had no comment on whether it would incorporate it into forthcoming Netbook models, or any other HP computers.
"HP wants to understand all the OS choices in the marketplace that may be used by its competitors, and remains open to considering various approaches to meet its own customer needs," company spokeswoman Marlene Somsak said in a statement Wednesday.
Dell was equally noncommittal. "Dell constantly assesses new technologies as part of managing our product development process and for consideration in future products," said spokeswoman Anne Camden.
Of course they do. But a Google OS could completely change the long-established process of putting together a consumer PC and would totally change how it is priced. Yet neither of the two giants of the industry have a comment. Acer, which is the fastest-growing PC maker right now, said it "had no answer" yet.
Reading between the lines, it appears the top three hardware vendors have little or no relationship with the search and online advertising giant. But if Google plans to make inroads into Netbooks and eventually notebooks, that will have to change very soon. Every consumer desktop and notebook, and most Netbooks today (excluding computers from Apple) are designed to run Windows. Microsoft has deep hooks in the manufacturers' design and engineering processes, and the hardware companies' marketing and product launch cycles always take Microsoft's plans into account.
More recently, Asus, Acer, and Samsung have said they plan to offer Google's Android, which is really an operating system for mobile devices like smartphones, on Netbooks. (A Chrome OS will clearly have an effect on that, though no one is saying anything yet.) But the idea of offering a free operating system like Android shows that those vendors are actively looking for ways to cut as much cost as possible out of the PC manufacturing process. Free operating systems allow already-cheap Netbooks in the $300 to $400 range to get below $200.
The flip side is that even if Google does develop a closer relationship with PC makers, it's consumer demand that matters most. Computer vendors have already seen that while Linux-based Netbooks sold in small amounts to early adopters, the form factor didn't morph into a mainstream phenomenon until Windows XP began to be more widely available on the devices. Just a year ago, XP was on 10 percent of Netbooks. Now it's on .