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Google Chrome OS Depends On Hardware Partners

Despite its focus on the Web -- a platform with proven appeal -- Chrome OS will also need compelling hardware to compete against Apple's anticipated tablet and Windows netbooks.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a computer booting up in less than seven seconds.

Speed is one of the primary attributes that Google is trying to build into Chrome OS, the company's forthcoming operating system. Security and simplicity are the others.

Google made the open source code of its unfinished operating system available on Thursday and invited developers to contribute to the company's attempt to reinvent computing.

Google aims to do away with the most onerous aspects of computer use: long start-up times, the installation and maintenance of multiple applications, application learning curves, security worries, and the difficulty of making data available on any device.

At a media event held to announce the availability of Chrome OS code, Sundar Pichai, VP of product management at Google, said that his company's goal was to make the computer start-up experience more like turning on a television.

Using Chrome OS will be very similar to using the Chrome Web browser. Operations currently done on computer desktops -- moving files around and loading them from external devices -- will be either unnecessary -- users won't install applications in Chrome OS -- or done inside a browser tab or window.

Pichai demonstrated this by inserting a USB flash drive into a netbook running Chrome OS. The contents of the drive, a set of Microsoft Excel files, appeared as hyperlinks on a Web page. Clicking on a file opened it in Windows Live Excel, part of Microsoft's online version of Office, because Chrome OS doesn't use locally installed applications like Excel.

Chrome OS will provide a way to map file type extensions to specific Web applications, to allow users open Excel files in, for example, Google Docs.

When it reaches consumers late next year, Chrome OS will run on netbooks with solid-state memory -- no hard drives -- from an undisclosed group of hardware partners.

Gartner analyst Ray Valdes says that the commitment of Google's partners will be critical to the success of Chrome OS.

"They're in some sense putting their future in the hands of an ecosystem of hardware partners and it's uncertain how seriously the partners will take it," he said. "Is anyone betting the farm?"

Among several potential reasons pitfalls, Google's hardware partners may face competition from Apple's rumored tablet, which presumably will also provide access to Web applications.

Valdes says he wonders whether any of Google's hardware partners at participating in the Chrome OS effort to win more favorable terms in their negotiations with Microsoft.

Pichai wasn't ready to discuss whether Chrome OS would include a software monetization platform along the lines of Apple's iTunes App Store for the iPhone. But he did suggest that Google was considering ways to improve users' ability to find Web apps. That of course is Google's core competency: search.

Referring to Apple's public announcements about the growing number of apps in its App Store -- now over 100,000 -- Pichai observed, "The reason they can count is it's countable. On the Web, there are hundreds of millions of applications. Our job is to make those discoverable."

Valdes believes that Google already has a means of monetization to rival the App Store: The company's online tools for placing ads on the Web.

Moreover, as Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, and other company executives have repeated over the years, increased usage of the Web benefits Google. That's true not only in monetary terms -- Google serves most of the ads on the Web -- but also in platform terms. Increased usage of the Web ensures continued interest in the creation of applications using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and other Web technologies.

Valdes sees Chrome OS primarily as an attempt to reach consumers who want computer use to involve less hassle. He expects it to have minimal impact on enterprises, except to the extent that the consumerization of IT brings netbooks into the workplace.

InformationWeek Analytics outlines the 10 questions you need to ask to see where netbooks fit within your organization. Download the report here (registration required).

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