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No silver lining in Chrome OS delays

It seems pretty clear that Chrome OS Netbooks won't be available in 2010. Is this something the tech industry still wants?

A Chrome OS delay might not be the worst thing in the world if it gives Google time to hone its pitch.
A Chrome OS delay might not be the worst thing in the world if it gives Google time to hone its pitch.

Google executives like to say they celebrate their failures, reasoning that when something fails, at least they've learned something. Perhaps with Chrome OS, they're learning how to set expectations.

It's looking pretty clear that Google is going to miss its fourth-quarter target for the launch of Chrome OS, a lightweight Web-based operating system that is designed for Netbooks. The company hasn't said as much, but Google CEO Eric Schmidt referred to the Chrome OS launch as "a few months" away in mid-November, and Jim Wong, senior vice president for Acer, told reporters last week that Google is planning a consumer launch in 2011.

Wong, whose company was among the original Chrome OS hardware partners, also suggested that Google may be planning to duplicate its corporate holiday party gift bag from last year, when attendees received Nexus One phones several weeks before they made their formal debut. Google has long said that it plans to have its employees use Chrome OS internally, and may jump-start the process with a free Netbook as a Christmas gift: a company representative would only say "we are very happy with the progress of Google Chrome OS and we'll have more details to share later this year."

But what to make of Chrome OS? The idea is solid: a Web-based operating system that doesn't tax a battery, allows for extremely fast boot times, and provides security with no local data or locally installed applications. Yet smart ideas often fail from a lack of execution as well as shifting tastes among those once willing to jump on board.

It's just hard to see exactly where Chrome OS Netbooks fit among the hardware scene of late 2010 and early 2011. It's increasingly clear the tablet device is here to stay, and those companies not named Apple that want to target that category are using Android--not Chrome OS--in order to get going.

Schmidt reiterated at the Web 2.0 conference in November that Android is optimized for devices where touch-screen input rules, while Chrome OS is meant more for devices with traditional keyboards. The last time Google provided a significant update about Chrome OS, Sundar Pichai, the leader of the Chrome OS project, said Google was drawing up specific Netbook hardware requirements for partners that were likely to involve larger screens and keyboards than the industry standard Netbook.

Acer, a prominent Chrome OS supporter, is investing heavily in tablets and using Android, not Chrome, on those devices.
Acer, a prominent Chrome OS supporter, is investing heavily in tablets (such as the ones showcased last week) and using Android, not Chrome, on those devices (click for larger image). Acer

But hardware makers just aren't investing in Netbooks the way they were a few years ago, when they felt compelled to produce a lower-cost product amid a huge economic recession despite the drain on their operating margins. Tablets are more friendly to those margins, and companies thinking about tablets this year and next need to go with the software that is tested and mature--Android--as opposed to the development project that is Chrome OS.

One big advantage that Chrome OS has for the cost-conscious hardware maker is, of course, the cost: it's free. But even with that selling point it's obvious that the buzz surrounding the Netbook market a few years ago has dramatically faded with the rise of the tablet, perhaps demonstrated quite well by Acer's massive tablet unveiling last week in New York, where not a Netbook was to be found.

Almost since the day Google revealed plans for Chrome OS, a persistent unanswered question has been "why develop another operating system?" Google thinks that the answer to such questions is "because we can," believing that if enough smart people gather to work on big important projects that some truly excellent work will result.

It's starting to become clear, however, that this creates confusion both internally and externally. When asked earlier this year about the overlap between Google Wave and Google Buzz, Lars Rasmussen, the co-creator of Google Wave (who has since departed for Facebook), said "If we required every product we launched not to have any overlapping functionality, that would dramatically slow down our innovation. I wish I could tell you there was a grand master plan, but that's not how it works at Google."

Google struggles with the classic big-company problem of how to generate innovation when it takes so much longer for ideas to bubble up from the rank-and-file to the senior management level. And so, it allows overlapping projects to develop as to give talented employees an outlet for their creativity, figuring that even if the project is a bust--like Google Wave--it can at least find uses for that code somewhere.

That strategy can backfire, however, when external partners have to depend on your guidance. Netbook makers who have been thinking about working with Google as a hedge against Apple and an alternative to Microsoft have had to navigate quite the maze.

Android, in fact, was originally pitched as suitable for Netbooks, until it became clear that smartphones and tablets were the smart hardware bets in 2010. Chrome OS has been discussed as suitable for tablets, but Schmidt's comments indicate that it's not really meant for that kind of device. Andy Rubin, head of Android development, said the two operating systems will follow separate paths, while Google's Sergey Brin suggested that Android and Chrome OS will simply merge over time.

So Google's main Chrome OS problem may not be that it's not going to be ready for the holiday season. It's that it may be a product that's both behind the times (too late for the Netbook craze) and ahead of its time (too early for the coming era of HTML5-based Web apps), with no coherent explanation as to why it's necessary now.

Google has some time to figure this out, now that the pressure of meeting the holiday season deadline has passed. It's extremely important to the future of the project, because if the industry doesn't understand why it needs Chrome OS, it's hard to imagine how consumers will.