SAN FRANCISCO -- Google unveiled the first test models of the Chrome OS notebooks that use services and applications in the cloud rather than the local storage notebooks traditionally relied on.
The search giant had to backtrack a bit from its forecast in November 2009 that the first crop of the new notebooks would be ready in time for this year's holiday shopping season. The revised estimate is that partners Acer and Samsung will deliver the first new notebooks using Intel's Atom processor by the middle of 2011.
But Google said thousands of its employees are testing prototype devices internally and it's launching a pilot program with a number of companies, including American Airlines, Cardinal Health, Kraft and Virgin Air, to test an unbranded version of the new notebooks that feature solid state hard drives with near instant on performance at startup, a 12.1-inch screen and several advanced security features.
In a demo Google showed that only a few steps are required to log in to a brand new Chrome OS notebook and access the Web, a process that took less than a minute and would be even quicker after a user is already registered.
"We were surprised by the CIO interest," Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management at Google and head of the Chrome OS notebook project, said during a media event here. "We were inundated with calls."
Sundar said CIOs were particularly interested in the lower total cost of ownership (TCO) the notebooks promise because, among other features, the OS and applications are automatically updated to the latest version at startup. Also, the Chrome OS keeps potential malware in a so-called "sandbox" that limits it exposure to the browser and not the users files stored in the cloud.
Using the Incognito feature of Google's Chrome browser, a Chrome OS notebook owner could also share the notebook with a colleague or family member with no access to personal browsing history or any browser history recorded.
Also, several new details have emerged in Google's plans that promise to expand the notebook's appeal. One criticism of last year's announcement was that the system's reliance on the cloud and emphasis on new Web-based applications would limit its appeal.
Google addressed both those points. In a surprise announcement with Verizon, Google said each Chrome OS notebook will include 3G connectivity for free, up to 100 megabytes a month for the first two years of ownership. That's in addition to the system's built-in Wi-Fi. Additional 3G access will be available on an a la carte basis (starting at $9.95 for a single day of unlimited access) without any contract commitment.
Google also said it's working to bring back offline access to its Google Docs, already available in Gmail, and applications developed for Google's Chrome OS will support offline access.
As for legacy applications, Google announced a partnership with Citrix which plans to make its Citrix Receiver available to work with Chrome. Gordon Payne, a senior vice president at Citrix, said there are over 250,000 companies using Citrix's technology ranging from smaller 50-person firms up to huge enterprises. In a demo, Citrix showed how users will be able to access Microsoft Office, SAP and other enterprise apps on a Chrome OS notebook and Citrix Receiver software. The apps are accessed from a company's data center where they are stored.
Excel, SAP and and the SolidWorks CAD program also loaded almost instantly. "You notice it's much faster than loading on a PC," said Payne.
Analyst Greg Sterling with SearchEngineLand said he's had to rethink the appeal of a Chrome OS notebook to the enterprise since Google first discussed its plans a year ago. "I don't doubt the CIOs are calling when you look at the security and cost advantages in terms of support," Sterling told InternetNews.com.
He also isn't surprised Google has now stopped calling the new hardware netbooks or "Pro netbooks" as it did a year ago. "Netbooks have become a pejorative term," he said, noting that sales and innovation of netbooks have flattened while interest in tablets like Apple's iPad has risen.
Google may further tweak its enterprise plans later next year. "You can imagine an enterprise version of Chrome OS," said Pichai.