Google Places Big Bet on Chromebooks

Google just announced a number of new features and partners around its ChromeOS program. Chromebooks, as Google calls them, will be available for purchase in the U.S., UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain on June 15. Starting at the same time, businesses and schools will be able to subscribe to the Chromebook program for $28 and $20 dollars respectively. The first Chromebooks will be made by Acer and Samsung. Acer’s first device will be a small laptop that will retail for around $349 dollars and Samsung will make a larger device that will cost $429 for a WiFi-only version and $499 for a 3G-enabled one.

What’s a Chromebook?

To provide 3G data plans, Google has also partnered with telecom companies in all of the countries it is launching this program. In the U.S. Chromebooks will be available through Amazon and Best Buy and Verizon will provide the 3G connectivity.

Samsung's Chromebook

These Chromebooks basically run a modified version of Google’s Chrome browser on top of a Linux operating system that is almost completely hidden from the user. They feature SSD drives for fast startup (8 seconds), SD card slots and a very long battery life (around 8 hours). They do not, however, allow users to install any software outside of browser extensions, making them safer and easier to upgrade than traditional laptops (but also more limited in their usefulness, as some critics point out). The devices will be based around dual-core Intel Atom processors.

Chromebook’s for Businesses and Schools

On the business side, Google is also stressing the reduced cost of maintaining these laptops, as well as their compatibility with web-based enterprise apps and apps virtualized through technologies like Citrix.

Besides laptops, Samsung will also produce a Mac Mini-like Chromebox – a small computer that allows users to attach their own screens, keyboards and mice. Google did not share any information about the price and availability of this device, though.

As Google’s Sundar Pichai told the audience during today’s keynote, managing computers is too costly and too complex for most businesses and schools. With the Chromebook, Google wants to make this cheaper and easier. Just like the CR-48 laptop Google gave away during a pilot program over the last few months, these new Chromebooks will update themselves automatically (“They will get better as you use them,” said Pichai) and businesses that subscribe to Google’s program will also get regular hardware refreshes, as well as warranties and replacements.

Besides the limited sales of its Nexus phones and its search appliance, this is really the first time Google gets this deeply into the hardware business. So far, Google hasn’t really established a reputation for great customer service, but maybe this program will give it a chance to redeem itself.