Google offers a peek at its Chrome laptop. Hint: it's an NC

Google gave the world a first look at its new Chrome OS laptop Tuesday and according to CEO Eric Schmidt it's very much like the Network Computer devices that he was pitching while chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems 13 years ago.

Only this time around, the idea will actually catch on, Schmidt said.

The difference, Schmidt said, is that the Web-based development tools used to build programs for Chrome OS have had had years to mature. "Our instincts were right... but we didn't have the tools," he said of the computer industry's failure to make lightweight computers that could compete with Microsoft Windows in the enterprise.

Google thinks that Web applications are finally ready to displace Microsoft's hegemony and businesses will buy computers that can't run programs such as Word or Excel.

"I think there's every reason to believe that when you go back and you look at history, not only is this the right time to build these products, but because they work and they work at scale, they'll be very successful," Schmidt said.

Google didn't say if or when it was going to start selling its own lightweight laptops. But the company did offer a sneak peak at a completely black, unbranded notebook, running the Chrome OS, that it's shipping out to developers and a limited number of lucky consumers.

Dubbed the Cr-48, the laptop has a 12.1 inch display, a regular-sized keyboard, and a battery that will last for eight hours.

Like the Network Computer (NC), the Cr-48 is designed to run software over the network. But instead of Java -- which proved to be clunky and hard to develop on the NC -- Chrome OS developers can use the same Web development tools they've been working with for years. Google's system boots up in 60 seconds; after it goes to sleep, it can resume operations nearly instantly; it encrypts all data automatically; and it uses a piece of encryption hardware called a trusted computing module to digitally sign components of the operating system and check them for tampering.

And like today's smartphones, Chrome OS systems are designed to be always connected. Thanks to a deal with U.S. carrier Verizon, Chrome OS notebook users will get two years worth of free 3G wireless connectivity. Their free usage will be capped at 100 MB per month, but Verizon will offer plans for more bandwith-intensive users.

"Why do I think this strategy is going to work well?" Schmdit asked. "A lot, because of mobile computing."

Increasingly, mobile devices such as the BlackBerry and the iPhone are becoming critical business tools.

Google had been hoping to announce its first Chrome OS laptops by years end, but that deadline has slipped. Intel-based systems from Samsung and Acer will ship by mid-2011, Google now says.

Google also announced a new Web store for Chrome browser users and updates to its browser software at Tuesday's event.

Despite heavy promotion by enterprise vendors such as Sun and Oracle, the NC never managed to win the hearts of enterprise software developers. Google seems to understand that it will take some work to win those people over with Chrome OS computers that can't run popular Windows programs. It has already started pilot programs with enterprises such as American Airlines, Cardinal Health, Intercontinental Hotels, the U.S. Department of Defense and others.

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

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