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ARM chip camp sees Google Chrome as opportunity

Texas Instruments and Qualcomm executives talk about the opportunities they see with the Google Chrome operating system.

Texas Instruments and Qualcomm executives talked Wednesday about the opportunities they see for the just-announced Google Chrome operating system.

Prototype Qualcomm Snapdragon processor-based device
Prototype Qualcomm Snapdragon processor-based device Qualcomm

The Chrome operating system is "lightweight," a term that Google uses, meaning the OS runs fine on less hardware. Chrome will initially be targeted at Netbooks--essentially ultra-small laptops--that will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010, according to Google.

Both TI and Qualcomm believe the Google OS will provide more opportunity for new-fangled devices to gain wider acceptance. And both believe this is an opportunity for their respective ARM processors--which power many of the world's cell phones--to gain more ground.

Analysts see the makings of a broad realignment in the computer industry. "What Google is betting on with the Chrome OS (is a) shift in computing and consumer behavior," Charles King, president and principal analyst at Pund-IT, wrote in a research note on Wednesday. "If that scenario truly comes to pass, it could disrupt the efforts of virtually every vendor focused on personal computing."

Texas Instruments, which has been working with Google on the Chrome OS, expects big changes in the design of devices, according to Ramesh Iyer, TI's head of worldwide business development for mobile computing.

"Netbooks are really the tip of the iceberg. We need to fast forward into the future and think of things beyond the Netbook thanks to this initiative from Google," Iyer said in a phone interview. TI's OMAP ARM processor powers a number of cell phones and smartphones including the recently-announced Palm Pre.

"We see the future being cloud computing really. You are walking around with a simple tablet, that is probably no thicker than the thickness of your display. It may have a (physical) keyboard, it may have a soft keyboard. A world where you're no longer carrying around a two-pound or five-pound notebook but a small tablet," he said.

These handheld computers, sometimes called mobile Internet devices, physically differentiate themselves from high-end handsets, like Apple's iPhone, by their size. They typically have screens about 1.5 to 2 times the size of an iPhones's and, in some cases, come with keyboards.

Qualcomm is already seeing new designs in the pipeline. "We've seen designs that are so thin that when people pick them up for the first time they're shocked by how light they are," Rob Chandhok, vice president of software strategy for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, said in a phone interview.

For these devices, the focus will be the browser, not the OS underneath. "Probably one of the biggest things you can read into the Chrome announcement is that in this proposed world the browser is the platform," he said. "In Smartbooks (Qualcomm's terminology for a Netbook) you need a little bit more screen because you're reading documents and doing a lot of typing but not carrying around a four-pound laptop. In that environment, the most important platform is the browser," he said.

Chandhok also spoke to how the platform is different from Google's Android OS. "In Chrome, it is written as Java Script application," he said. "The difference is that the Gmail application on the Android phone is a separate application. (But) the way you would do that on a Chrome OS device is you would run that in a browser window. More of the computational environment is in the Web browser, like Google Maps."

None of this is lost on Intel. The world's largest chipmaker has been successful so far at squeezing its silicon into most of the world's Netbooks. And Intel is now going after the ultra-small device and smartphone market by hooking up with companies like Nokia and LG Electronics.

"We welcome Google's move. More choice in this area will benefit the industry and help to speed innovation," an Intel spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Will Google's Chrome technology result in a precipitous end to the domination of Windows-Intel-based laptops and Netbooks? King cautioned that Google has a lot of catching up to do. "We believe those assessments are deeply premature. By the time Chrome OS-enabled products (and their still-unknown tools and applications) reach the market Windows 7-based netbooks will have been available for the better part of a year," he wrote.