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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Expect a Slow Rollout for Google's Chrome OS

Developing software drivers is hard. From enhancing security and improving the speed of the operating system to fixing bugs, the work of the engineers behind Google's Chrome OS is never done. Or at least it won't be in some form, until 2011.

A little more than a year ago, Google representatives pitched an invitation to a Google Chrome OS event, promising to discuss the new operating system's launch plans, which they said would happen in 2010. At that event, Google released the technical preview of the Google Chrome OS code, which has lived on as both an open-source Chromium product as well as an internal development effort inside Google.

Since then, however, Google appears to be taking the same cautious approach toward building Chrome OS netbooks as it did when it launched Android. I expect the netbooks from Acer and Samsung will be nearly identical, with maybe a unique component or two providing differentiation. For now, Google's remaining mum on the issue.

(As for tablets? That's Android's department, Google executives said.)

The problem? From a hardware standpoint, Chrome OS faces the same hurdle as Linux: software drivers. Certain products, such as the Linksys WRT54G router, become playgrounds for developers and hackers. But stray too far from the mainstream, and developing a Linux driver falls to the enthusiast coder, or the manufacturer itself.

As Google and its developer network enhance and polish both the operating system and its interactions with hardware components, it's likely that the depth and breadth of hardware devices will flourish, as it has with Android. And - with no disrespect to the legions of Linux devlopers - it can't hurt that one of the most dynamic technology companies in the industry is driving development.

But it's probably safe to say that that development is occurring more slowly than expected.

On track or not?

With that said, I asked several Google employees about the status of Chrome OS, and whether they felt that it was running behind schedule.

"The ability of us in the software industry [to predict roadmaps] is less than stellar," Linus Upson, Google's engineering director in charge of its Chrome OS and Android, told me. "So it's done when it's done."

Caesar Sengupta, a product manager at Google, also characterized the development process as a "long journey," echoing chief executive Eric Schmidt's words earlier in the day.

"It must be made faster. There are bugs. We're working on a lot more stuff within the stack to make Chrome OS much better, much faster, more reliable," Sengupta said. "I think lots of stuff will keep happening. The most important thing is that every few weeks you'll get a brand-new operating system."

That's true. Full-featured, polished products are critical to building a positive relationship with customers, while the aftertaste of a half-baked, buggy device lingers for years.

Google also took a cautious approach to its Android launch, prompting questions of where, exactly, the phones were, after it launched the T-Mobile G1 in Sept. 2008, and then the MyTouch 3G. Once Motorola rolled out the Droid lineup, however, the platform took off, and Android could pass Apple's iOS in market share by CES.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the notion that Google employees have been working on the first prototype netbooks for some time, but that the first products aren't due until mid-2011. Usually, the discrepancy either equals a robust population of bugs - which Google has acknowledged - a desire to polish the final release, or both.

It's also telling that Google plans to update Chrome OS at the pace of its Chrome browser, rather than the more deliberate pace of Android. That implies that Google's mindset is that it must catch up to the more established Apple, Microsoft, and Linux operating systems, rather than set the pace.

"There has to be a ton of work underneath the covers to enable that simplicity," Sengupta said of the Chrome OS work.

The problem, of course, is that over time, the various permutations of components mean an equally complex series of combinations of drivers, which can bog down a system. Google appears to be making a concerted effort, however, to mitigate that "bit rot," possibly by using the same sort of "garbage collection" techniques that embedded OS developers use.

I honestly don't expect the hands-on of the Google Cr-48, when it is released, to be all that extravagant. Google has said that the entire purpose of the Chrome OS is push a user to the Web as fast as possible. Whether the Cr-48 can do that job should be immediately obvious.

But even Web users want to print. And play 3D games. And share files. And access an external hard drive, or an SD card. And connect a USB keyboard. And dock the netbook. And a number of other things. A specialized netbook (or a tablet) doesn't have to do any of these things. Whether or not Google's audience will expect it to may be the real question.

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