Back in 2009, Google announced Chrome OS, an operating system for web-centric “Chromebook” laptops which would run online services and store almost everything in the cloud. Two years later, the first models — a $349 Acer and a $499 Samsung — shipped in mid-2011. (I made a good-faith effort to use the Samsung instead of my MacBook Air and didn’t have a great time.) New models have arrived since, including a Samsung version, which my colleague Jared Newman liked.
Whether Chromebooks have failed is open to debate, but they haven’t succeeded — if success involves widespread adoption by everyday folks. The contrast with the iPad, which was announced after Chrome OS, but which shipped more than a year before the first Chromebooks, is striking.
But Google hasn’t given up on the Chromebook. Actually, it seems to be redoubling its effort to make the concept work — and today, it’s announcing a new model, built by Samsung, that costs just $249.
Earlier Chromebooks were adopted by…well, early adopters. At a press event this morning, Sundar Pichai, Google’s Chrome honcho, said that the new one is aimed at families who’ll use it at home, in many cases as a second or third computer. That helps nudge it away from one basic Chromebook conundrum: They’re designed to be used mostly in places where Internet access is available.
This model — which has the Apple-esque moniker “the new Samsung Chromebook” — has an ARM processor (earlier models used Intel chips), an 11.6-inch matte screen, a full-sized keyboard and touchpad, a webcam, 16GB of local storage and two years’ worth of 100GB of Google Drive space. It’s less than 0.8 inches thick, weighs less than 2.5 pounds and is rated for up to 6.5 hours of battery life. It boots in 10 seconds and can do 1080p video at 30 frames per second.
It also sports some new Chrome OS features, such as the ability to remote-control Windows PCs and Macs, and the ability to begin a search on a Chromebook and route the results to Google Now on an Android Jelly Bean phone.
As before, the major selling pitch for Chrome OS and Chromebooks is the seamless simplicity of the cloud. You can log onto any Chrome OS device and have instant access to all your stuff, don’t have to think much about software upgrades and are safe from viruses.
Pichai says that this Chromebook, unlike previous versions, will be given a major mainstream marketing push: It’ll be advertised on national TV, it’ll be in 500 Best Buy stores and at Google retail kiosks, and it’ll be sold in Google’s own Google Play online store as well as at Amazon.com. It goes on sale on Monday, though it may take a little more time to arrive in stores.
So what will it compete with? Well, inexpensive Windows notebooks, although even the cheapest name brand ones are a bit more than $249 (and a whole lot clunkier than the Chromebook’s Ultrabook-like hardware). I asked Pichai if the machine will look like a tablet alternative, and he said that it will in some cases — the fact that it has a real keyboard makes it a more practical choice in many scenarios.
I’m still not sure about Chrome OS’s prospects, but the operating system has matured — more stuff works in offline mode than when the first models went on sale — and Google’s new target market sounds plausible. The $249 price point is also far more appealing. (In fact, I thought it sounded good back in March 2011.)
And with the TV commercials and widespread retail availability, it’ll get in front of plenty of consumers who’ve never heard of the whole concept. For them, this might as well be the first Chromebook, and it’ll be fascinating to see how they react to it.