Google's Chrome-Powered Netbook Almost Here?

Wither Google's Chrome OS-powered netbook? Or is it a notebook or a smartbook?

A year ago, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) previewed plans to help launch a new generation of "Pro netbooks" designed to run Web-services powered by Google's Chrome operating system.

Now at least one report has surfaced, by Taiwan-based DigiTimes, that Google is getting ready to unveil the first of the new portables later this month. That would be about right on schedule given that at last November's media preview event Google officials said the first units would start appearing in a year in time for the holiday shopping season.

A spokesman for Google would neither confirm or deny an announcement is coming. "We don't comment on rumor or speculation," he said.

But a lot has happened since Google made its plans known. For one thing, the phenomenal success of Apple's iPad has other vendors scrambling to bring out competitive tablet devices.

The netbook market has also cooled as notebook prices continue to fall closer to the $299 - $399 price netbook price range, making the latter more attractive for many buyers.

Google said a year ago that it was working with leading vendors to bring out a new generation of netbooks with bigger screens and keyboards. The DigiTimes report referred to Google's new Chrome-based model as both a "smartbook" and "notebook" and whether Google sticks with the Pro netbook moniker or something else isn't clear.

According to the report, Google's Chrome notebook will be based on an ARM chipset and manufactured by Inventec with initial shipments expected to be in the 60,000-70,000 range. Also, like the ill-fated Nexus One smartphone, the report says Google will eschew retailers and sell the device directly. Acer and HP (NYSE: HPQ) are expected to launch Chrome notebooks next month after Google's initial foray.

Analyst Nathan Brookwood says the biggest challenge Google and anyone else producing Chrome-powered notebooks will have is winning over developers.

"Without a whole of apps, it's an uninteresting platform," Brookwood, principal analyst and founder of Insight64, told InternetNews.com. "Developers are focused mainly on Apple's iOS and Android and there's still a huge base of Windows systems drawing their attention. Where does a platform that isn't any of those justify developer's attention?"

Analyst Ben Bajarin is skeptical, based on his contacts with suppliers, that major vendors are ready to deliver Chrome-powered notebook this year, but he doesn't rule out Google itself getting the ball rolling. "A Google-branded model this month? Sure," Bajarin, analyst with Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com.

Bajarin said the Nexus One was painted as a failure by the media because Google pulled it off the market, but he thinks Google views it differently.

"The Nexus One was a reference design Google went to market with. What Google was trying to show was what the ideal Android device should look like. Well, what did we end up with? Some very good Android devices," he continued. "I could easily see Google seeding the market in the same way with these new Chrome devices."

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of