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Opinion: can Google Chrome OS save the netbook?

The netbook has been superceded, but Chrome could change that

It feels like a generation ago that the Asus Eee PC 701 revolutionised portable computing. In fact, Asus revealed its 7in-screen Linux laptop in June 2007, making the netbook two years younger than the still fresh-feeling PlayStation 3.

Netbooks raced straight from concept to world domination – the Eee PC alone sold more than 300,000 units in four months, Windows XP was reprieved for netbook duty, and sales of Atom chips saw Intel’s market share grow in every quarter of 2008.

But the netbook’s reliance on lightweight operating systems proved its undoing. Microsoft allowed manufacturers to use XP, but only through gritted teeth. In setting the rules to do so it locked down the specification. As a consequence, even when using Windows 7 the netbook remains in stasis: Intel Atom chip, 1GB RAM, 10in screen. Boring.

That netbooks have similar computing power to a 2001 desktop PC was once a boast. As the world has moved on, it’s become a damning criticism. With small screens and keyboards, netbooks are brilliant at nothing but being cheap. Next to tablets and smartphones they look clunky.

Of course, netbooks don’t come only with Windows. Manufacturers who choose to avoid Microsoft software can develop the form factor to their hearts’ content. But PCs have to sell: and a laptop without a Windows logo doesn’t appeal to the masses (unless it’s a Mac, and Apple has avoided netbooks like a dog avoids a bath).

Linux is a good option, but without a public-friendly brand it will never be mainstream. Enter Google Chrome OS. Announced with fanfare in July 2009, Google’s cloud-based Linux OS was supposed to launch ‘late 2010’. You may have noticed that it didn’t.

But Google recently said Chrome OS laptops will hit the shelves in mid-2011. It thinks the internet and mobile computing are now sufficiently mature for the enterprise.

Designed to be always connected, Google has a test system - the Google CR-48 - that boots up in 60 seconds. From sleep it can resume operations instantly. All data is automatically encrypted. And all the action takes place on the web.

Google Chrome netbooks are designed to run software over a network, meaning they can utilise the web-development tools Google boffins have been perfecting for years. They aren’t reliant on Windows, and their lack of desktop software should mean they’re fast and secure.

“Why do I think this strategy will work?” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “Because of mobile computing.”

And that’s the crux. Using Google’s web smarts and mobile technology, Chrome OS could be about to breathe life back into the netbook.

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