Suddenly, mini laptop computers are no longer so mini, at least in importance.
Google Inc.'s new operating system, announced Tuesday, could be a huge boon to a relatively new breed of computers, the small, lightweight devices known as netbooks now offered by Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and a handful of other companies.
The Google Chrome OS, when released next year, will initially be aimed at netbooks, with the goal of making them speedier and more nimble.
It’s sure to get netbooks -- which now make up about 15% of the portable computer market, according to IDC -- more notice on the part of the public.
“When Google talks about something, it gets a lot of attention,” said Matthew Wilkins, an analyst for ISuppli research.
But the most significant boost to netbooks with the introduction of Chrome OS could come from price reductions. Manufacturers using the free Google product would no longer be paying Microsoft Corp.'s operating system fees. That could knock as much as $50 off the price of netbooks, some of which already retail for as little as $200.
“The driving force behind netbooks is very much the price factor,” Wilkins said. “When you look at the price point of netbooks now, that’s a considerable savings.”
The Google system would also return netbooks -- which generally have screens that measure 9 or 10 inches diagonally -- to their roots. When they came out in 2007, they were aimed mostly at developing countries. They primarily operated on a so-called cloud computing basis, depending on the Web for a lot of their functions and for storage.
But North American and Western European computer users started buying them because of their portability -- some weigh as little as 2.5 pounds. Manufacturers added the Microsoft operating system so that familiar programs such as Word could be used. The cloud concept got mostly dropped.
“People were treating them just like small laptops,” said IDC analyst Richard Shim.
Functionality was limited mainly to basic e-mailing, word processing, showing off a few photos and uncomplicated spreadsheet work. The devices could not handle Grand Theft Auto or other graphics- and video-intensive games.
The recession gave netbooks a boost because of their low prices.
“With the money in our pockets being squeezed, they were seen as a great first computer for a teenager,” Wilkins said. “If it bounced down the stairs, you’d not be out a lot of money, like you would be with a Mac laptop.”
The Google operating system would send the machines back into the world of cloud computing, with the Web again being the primary source of applications.
The big drawback, Shim said, is that Chrome OS-powered netbooks run the risk of not being as attractive to consumers because they might not be compatible with standard applications such as Microsoft Word and Apple Inc.'s iTunes music player.
It’s too early to say whether Google has a solution to this.
“They tend to have developers rally around their efforts,” Shim said, and that could provide alternatives.
Shim was pessimistic about a significant boost in netbook sales, at least for the short term. He estimated that the market share for the devices would rise from 15% only to 17% or 18%, “and then plateau” through the end of next year.
There are other factors, too, that could greatly affect how much Google would mean to netbooks.
“How much of the price break will the manufacturers pass on to consumers?” Wilkins asked. “Will Google offer tech support, which costs money?
“Until we know all that, it’s not possible to know the impact.”