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Google Chromebook: Bigger than a tablet, but less useful

The pricing relative to functionality could be the real stumbling block as Google tries to convert users to a new computing paradigm

By Michael Gartenberg
May 19, 2011 09:37 AM ET

Computerworld - More than a year ago, Google announced an ambitious project to create a new class of device powered by an operating-system version of its Chrome browser. Many months of hyped expectations later, Google finally took the wraps off the first of its Chromebooks at its developer conference last week. While Google has delivered in some ways, the pricing of the Acer and Samsung Chromebooks relative to the functionality offered could spoil the party.

Late last year, Google sent out some developer prototype machines that were dubbed the CR-48. The company has made some impressive additions since those experimental units shipped. First, there's now a native file system that lets users move beyond the Web browsing that is at the heart of the Chrome OS experience. For example, users can perform such traditional tasks such as plugging in a USB flash drive or a digital camera and then interacting with files from those devices. But the file browser that Google has designed is very basic, looking like something that might have shipped with Windows 3.1 decades ago. Google has also included a rudimentary media player for audio and video, with an emphasis on "rudimentary." It's hard to see consumers embracing them when they've become accustomed to richer offerings such as iTunes and Windows Media Player.

Like the CR-48, the new Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer look much like laptops. This might be a mistake. Consumers have certain expectations from laptops, expectations that largely can't be met by a Chrome OS-based machine.

As for the hardware, Samsung will offer 12-in. Wi-Fi models for $449, and a version with 3G support for an additional $50. Both sport batteries that Samsung claims can run all day. Acer's product is a smaller, 11-in. offering that starts at $349. Its battery is rated for only 6.5 hours.

For businesses and those in the education market, Google will offer a rental model based on a three-year term. The price will be fixed, much as a lease, and if terminated early, the full fee would need to be paid.

But let's back up and look at the consumer pricing. Are consumers going to find $350 an attractive entry price for the Chrome OS experience? That same price could get you a very capable Windows laptop that's able to run the Chrome Web browser and deliver much of the Chrome OS experience while offering much more, such as the ability to run the thousands of rich applications that simply cannot be delivered yet through a Web browser. You could also spend a similar amount on a media tablet such as the iPad, whose own differentiated computing experience is bolstered by a rich ecosystem of native applications.

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