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Mélange of reactions surround Chrome OS

Posted: 14 Jul 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:operating system? Chrome OS? Chrome OS reactions?

Chipmakers and most analysts gave a thumbs-up to the concept of a Google Chrome OS. System makers, including the top customers of Microsoft Corp., took a more guarded wait-and-see stance on the Windows alternative that aspires to make its way eventually into mainstream notebook and desktop PCs.

Google announced Chrome OS in a blog posting, saying it would be available for consumers in the 2H 10 initially aimed at netbooks using x86 or ARM processors.

The company declined to provide interviews or answer questions on the hardware requirements and software components of the OS. "We are still coding and in early conversations with OEMs and others, so these technical decisions have not been made yet," said a Google spokesperson.

The announcement ends months of speculation that Google might create for netbooks a variant of its smart phone Android OS. Instead, it opted to create a lightweight OS under its Chrome browser released in September, it claims is now being used by 30 million people.

An early version of that OS has already booted on Freescale's i.Mx515 integrated processor designed for netbooks. The chip uses a GHz-class ARM Cortex A8 and 512Mbytes DDR2 memory.

"Our customers are interested in a significant brand and backer for an alternative software strategy and Google has the muscle to do this," said Glen Burchers, a consumer marketing director for Freescale. "Several of our largest customers are intrigued."

Freescale first heard about the effort "sometime between February and now," said Burchers. He heard about it from "one of our mutual customers, a large customer, who was previously focused on Android for netbooks, but they have now shifted to Chrome," he added.

The news will push out by as much as a year the launch of some Linux/ARM netbook designs originally planned for late this year. Other OEMs will roll out this year ARM/Linux netbooks using Ubuntu's distribution of Linux.

"Our first customers are coming out with Ubuntu systems," said Burchers. "There may be some people that still do Android netbooks, and we still have a board support package for it."

However, Android is focused on the smart phone. Even its next generation will only natively support up to 854 x 480 pixel resolutions.

Long term, the Android/Chrome OS split probably makes sense for Google, keeping separate teams focused on smart phones and larger computer-like devices. By rolling out a separate code base for netbooks, notebooks and desktops, Google reduces the risk its Android effort will become fragmented, something that has happened to other mobile Linux variants.

Android has been getting plenty of attention from a broad set of netbook and embedded developers as one of the first Linux distributions with the backing of a major company able to attract broad support among software developers.

Netbooks are becoming a segment of their own with one market watcher projecting they could grow to become almost a quarter of the mobile PC market in 2013. However, they face plenty of software issues such as finding a common applications framework and full support for Web video.

Skepticism, optimism
Analyst Will Strauss, principal of Forward Concepts, was skeptical Google could solve longstanding issues that have plagued PC Linux such as a lack of applications and driver support for common peripherals.

"The big drawback to running Linux on a netbook is that as soon as customers get it home they find that there's no driver for their existing printer, and the Chrome OS will have that problem in spades," Strauss said.

"How many years has it taken for Linux to get even a tiny slice of the PC market?" he asked. "Linus Torvalds created Linux in 1991. Can Google improve on that time span?"

Others were more upbeat.

"If Google can stay on or ahead of schedule, it will raise water level for netbooks, the fastest emerging PC sector," said Richard Doherty, principal of consulting firm Envisioneering. "Google's timing gives Microsoft, Intel and other Linux backers fair advance warning that they must innovate, lead or get out of the way," he added.

"We applaud Google's move here," an Intel spokesman said.

The company has long supported any OS on its x86 chips just as Microsoft supports other processors on its Windows CE and Mobile operating systems. "We've been privy to the [Chrome] project for some time and work with Google on a variety of projects, including elements of this one," said the Intel spokesman.

Strong option
PC makers Dell and Hewlett-Packard issued generic statements saying that they assess all new technologies including operating systems, but they declined to give interviews or any specifics of their interactions on Chrome OS.

A Dell technologist recently posted a video of a technology demo showing the company's Mini 10v mobile systems could run alternative operating systems including Ubuntu and Android.

Like Freescale, Texas Instrument sees Chrome OS as another strong software option for its ARM-based OMAP processors.

"Mobile computing appliances like netbooks are the tip of the iceberg in this rapidly evolving [mobile] segment," said Ramesh Iyer, TI's head of business development for mobile computing.

"A crucial aspect of such platforms is an integrated Linux software stack, which simplifies development and user usage models while still delivering a rich experience," he said. "Google's initiatives, especially with today's Chrome news, ease the challenges associated with creating this software stack."

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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