Google has finally launched a Chromebox - a desktop version of the Chromebook. Why the wait? Is the search giant so clever we don't know what it's up to, or so dumb it doesn't know what it's doing? By Ian Scales.
The Chromebox is a small desktop machine running Google's Web-based ChromeOS operating system. It's cheap(ish) at just US$329, it looks stylish (halfway between a Mac Mini and an enlarged iPhone 4) and there is a coherent narrative to go with it.
It has arrived with a new version of the ChromeOS operating system and a the latest version of the Chromebook. Taken together they're Google's vision what end-user devices could and should be in an increasingly cloudy world. Chromebox and Chromebook are appliances, not systems. They're ready to go immediately; unlikely to break down; easy to maintain and support (from a corporate point of view) and, because they are primarily a way of putting someone online with the least possible fuss, they are supposed to mesh with what most people, both at work and at home, want a computer for - to dish up the cloud.
The arrival of a specific Chromebox (rather than just a laptop running ChromeOS) is something i've been banging on about since Google announced ChromeOS, which must have been way back in the late Jurassic period. OK, in 2009 (see - Google opens another front in its battle with Microsoft) (see also - ChromeOS on the desktop anyone?)
In late 2010 Google finally got around to launching a developer's product, the CR-48, incorporating ChromeOS in a laptop 'form factor', all to widespread silence. And then in 2011 Acer and Samsung finally brought out versions of the same to the sound of a slow handclap from just about everyone. After that ChromeOS went rather flat and technology obituaries were published.
But, like Android before it (which also suffered a mighty sentiment slump for a year or so after the first disappointing product hit the market) it might be that Google's brainchild is finally righting itself.
Google has now partnered with Samsung to launch both a new Chromebook and the aforementioned Chromebox.
This time though, rather than wittering on vaguely about what a good experience ChromeOS is and comparing it favourably to a PC, Google has gone to where it should arguably have gone before and is chasing business and education markets.
The ChromeOS is really a system play, not a consumer gadget (at least at this stage of the game). The latest version goes beyond just being a browser - it also has a windows management system, so that Web apps can perform in their own windows (not just within another tab on the browser). This way they look like 'real' apps - this is probably a very good idea.
Its big selling point, though, is that it should be much easier (and cheaper) to support than a notoriously buggy PC or Mac. And in that context it may be an ideal 'terminal OS' in all those business environments which are moving to cloud services (schools, offices, retail, call centres and so on). This, it occurs to me, is particularly true of the Chomebox which can simply replace a huge estate of high maintenance PCs all for a few hundred dollars a unit, re-using screen, keyboard and mouse. That's the pitch, all else is just the icing.
Google has even decided to drop the confusing 'device-as-a-service' idea it has previously been pushing (get them used to the technical concept before you radically change the pricing model as well) and will simply have services and support as extras which are loaded up on the bill as required.
So far in its short life (just a day) the early reviews and pre-launch hands-on reports are at least mixed and split along party lines. The PC/Mac nerds simply find it unlike a PC/Mac, bemoan its lack of off-line capabilities and damn it as a silly idea - but at least now it's not as silly as it was when it was just the CR-48.
Those with proper IT and business perspective, such as Om Malik of GigaOm, think Google may have it right this time.
"Google, having realized that is is prudent to focus on businesses, has started rolling out corporate features inside the Chrome OS. These include auto-update controls, auto-enrollment, open-network configuration and new reporting features, in addition to more than 20 new policies in the past year such as URL whitelisting and blacklisting," says Om. In addition he says, the new version of the Chromebook is blisteringly fast and serves very well as a second computer.
That's good enough for me. I'll have a Chromebox.
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