Google Chrome OS, Take Two: New Software And Chromebooks

For its first birthday, Google Chrome OS gets faster Samsung hardware, Google Drive integration, a desktop UI, and a new pricing model.
New Chromebook
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New Chromebook
In conjunction with a Chrome OS update that incorporates a more traditional desktop user interface, Google and its hardware partner Samsung on Tuesday plan to introduce two Chrome OS devices, the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 and the Samsung Chromebox 3.

The Series 5 550 is an improved Chrome OS notebook. The Chromebox, first mentioned at CES in January and revealed through a TigerDirect online store listing on Friday, is a small desktop Chrome OS computer that requires a separate keyboard, mouse, and display.

"We're focused a lot on speed because that was one of the things we were not very happy with last year," said Caesar Sengupta, director of Chrome OS at Google, in a phone interview.

The Series 5 550 ($449/$549 w/3G) features an Intel Core processor, a step up in terms of processing power from the Intel Atom chips in last year's models. It's 2.5 times faster on the v8 benchmark than the old Series 5, according to Sengupta.

With a 12.1-inch, 1280 x 800 display, the Series 5 550 weighs 3.3 lbs. and boasts 6 hours of battery life, or 6.5 days in standby mode. It includes 4 GB of RAM, built-in dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Gigabit Ethernet, and a 3G modem option. There's an HD camera, two USB 2.0 ports, a 4-in-1 memory card slot, and a DisplayPort++ connector that can accommodate HDMI, DVI, or VGA monitors.

[ How big are the stakes for Google? Read Google's Chromebook Gamble. ]

The Series 3 Chromebox ($329) is a small computer akin to the Mac Mini. It scores 3.5x faster than last year's Chromebook on the v8 benchmark and sports six USB 2.0 ports, 2 DisplayPort++ connectors, DVI single link output, and support for Bluetooth 3.0. Both the Chromebox and Series 5 550 Chromebook now support hardware accelerated graphics, which makes Web page scrolling much quicker and makes the Chrome OS devices more suitable for Web-based games.

The new hardware will be running the latest version of Chrome OS, R19, which offers a much more traditional desktop user interface. Previously, the Chrome browser was locked in place and could not be moved to reveal a desktop below it. Version R19 restores the desktop metaphor by allowing browser windows to be moved and by adding a new app launch and the ability to customize desktop images. It also includes the ability to view Office files, stored locally or on Google Drive. So much for talk that computer users no longer need files.

This shift to a more familiar interface will soon be accompanied by Google Drive integration. Now available through the Chrome OS beta channel, Sengupta says this feature will reach general release in June, around the time of Google IO, the company's annual developer conference. Google Drive will effectively be the file system for Google's hardware. It will run offline and online and sync files across other computers, like Macs and PCs, so that the user's files can be accessed across multiple devices.

In addition, Google plans to release a beta version of Chrome Remote Desktop, which will allow users of Google's Chrome browser to access remote OS X or Windows computers from any device with Chrome installed.

Sengupta also said that offline editing will be coming to Google Docs in a matter of weeks. He said the feature is presently being tested internally at Google and will be rolled out as soon as it's ready.

A year ago, Google, Samsung, and Acer launched the first hardware running Chrome OS in an effort to improve the computing experience. While these Chromebooks were available through online retailers, they didn't sell very much to consumers.

Sengupta didn't offer specifics about Chromebook usage metrics but made it clear that Google didn't expect cloud-based computing to become the norm immediately. "Our goal is a fairly long-term one," he said. "We're trying to change the world of computing."

Google plans to expand its Chromebook marketing outreach: In June, expect to start seeing Chrome Zones in select Best Buy stores, where potential customers can test Chrome OS hardware.

But the Chromebook value proposition--easier, more affordable computer management and administration--wasn't really tailored to appeal to consumers; it was designed to ease the suffering of IT managers by automating chores like system patching.

"We think there's a lot of promise for Chrome OS in businesses," said Rajen Sheth, group product manager for Chrome for Business. "We've seen a lot of interest in retail for systems in stores, or call centers."

How much interest? Not enough to disclose sales figures, but enough to have a few noteworthy business customers lined up to test a new way of working. Retailer Dillard's intends to deploy hundreds of Chromeboxes in about half of its 304 U.S. stores. Education company Kaplan, in conjunction with call center company Genesys, intends to move its New York City call center to online real-time communication protocol WebRTC and Chromeboxes. Mollen Clinics expects to use 4,500 Chromebooks in its mobile immunization clinics in Wal-Mart and Sam's Clubs locations. And the California State Library intends to distribute 1,000 Chromebooks to libraries around the state for patrons to borrow.

Sheth says that the updated version of Chrome OS and the new Chrome hardware solve a lot of issues that businesses had with the first release. He cites the ability to view Office files and Google Drive integration as examples of changes that will make Chrome OS more palatable to businesses.

The updated hardware also comes with improved features for administrators, such as auto-update controls, auto-enrollment, open-network configuration and additional reporting features.

"When the user get the Chromebooks and logs in, that device knows it's part of the organization and will automatically configure itself," said Sheth, adding that this should make Chrome OS devices even more compelling to organizations concerned about total cost of ownership.

"Our biggest goal with the new management functionality is to make it so you can grab a Chromebook of a delivery truck and hand it to a user without the involvement of IT," said Sheth. "With a PC, that's not possible. It has to be imaged."

Perhaps the most compelling feature for businesses is a new pricing model. Google initially offered Chromebooks to businesses under a subscription model. That's no longer being offered.

"The major feedback we heard from businesses is that they want to be able to purchase once and be done with it," said Sheth.

The new plan works as follows: After purchasing the hardware, businesses and schools can buy lifetime management and support for $150 and $30, respectively.

The second coming of Chrome OS might just be enough to turn Google's experiment into a real market. But if not, there's always next year. "We're deeply committed to this," said Sengupta. "It's a step in the journey."

At this year's InformationWeek 500 Conference C-level execs will gather to discuss how they're rewriting the old IT rulebook and accelerating business execution. At the St. Regis Monarch Beach, Dana Point, Calif., Sept. 9-11.

05/29/2012: Corrected education pricing.

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