Google’s News: E-Books and Android and Chrome, Oh My

12/7/10Follow @wroush

Sometimes Google gives the appearance of being a loose confederation rather than a single company, as if its product units are all vying to make news at the same time. That’s definitely the case this week.

Monday saw three big developments at the Googleplex in Mountain View. First came the launch of the Google eBookstore, along with dedicated e-reading apps for multiple platforms, including Android, Apple iOS, Web browsers, and Sony and Barnes & Noble e-book readers. Then, an hour later, Google announced the Nexus S, a new Samsung smartphone that’s the closest thing in existence to a “pure Google” phone, according to Google engineering vice president Andy Rubin. Coinciding with the phone’s debut was the public release of Gingerbread, the code name for the new version of the Android operating system, which powers the Nexus S.

And today, at a press event held three blocks from Xconomy’s San Francisco headquarters, the company took the wraps off a long-awaited Web app store—and shared a detailed look inside its vision for Chrome OS, which will power a line of notebook computers coming next year.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these developments, in reverse chronological order.

Chrome OS. For the first time today, Google shared its vision for a new generation of notebook computers powered not by Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, but by Chrome OS—the operating system modeled after its popular Web browser, which is now used by 120 million people worldwide. Google plans to distribute a limited number of Chrome notebooks (with the geeky name Cr48, after an isotope of the element chromium) to business partners, developers, journalists, and other early adopters almost immediately. Consumer versions are coming from Samsung and Acer starting in “mid-2011,” according to Sundar Pichai, the Google vice president of product management who emceed today’s event.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt Speaks at Chrome OS EventThe guiding assumption behind Chrome OS is that everything PC users need to do today can be done from inside a Web browser. Chrome-powered notebooks will boot directly into the Chrome browser, and users will access the software and information resources they want either through the Web or through Web apps (i.e. browser plugins) that can be easily downloaded over the devices’ built-in 3G or Wi-Fi connections.

Chrome OS devices will cache applications and data for offline use, but they’ll be optimized for an always-on world. “Computers aren’t that useful when you’re not connected, so we’ve put in a lot of work to make sure users are always connected,” Pichai said. Google is partnering with Verizon to offer Chrome notebook owners no-contract 3G data plans, he said.

Google thinks Chrome devices will be more secure than traditional PCs since the operating system and all of a user’s Web apps will be updating automatically and seamlessly, protecting them from hackers who prey on consumers with outdated software. The machines will also automatically encrypt all user data, and will boot up using data stored in a “verified boot” section of the hardware that can’t be accessed by any application.

Businesses are already interested in Chrome notebooks, since the idea of a cloud-connected operating system overlaps well with existing efforts to convert formerly PC-centric applications to Software as a Service applications running on private clouds. Representatives from Citrix, the Florida-based virtualization company, were on hand at the Google event to say that they’re already working with Google to make Citrix’s own enterprise app store, Citrix Receiver, work with Chrome OS.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a brief appearance at the end of today’s press event and attempted to put the Chrome OS project into historical perspective. “This is not a new concept,” he said. “There are very few new ideas in computer science.” He said programmers and engineers have been dreaming of true network computers at least since the 1980s, and acknowledged that companies like Oracle and Sun had made big claims about network computing during the dot-com years.

“Why should you believe us now?” Schmidt asked rhetorically. “We were right then and we were wrong then. We were right about the underlying problems—the complexity and cost [of PCs]. We were wrong in underestimating how complex and subtle the problems were….and we couldn’t build great apps on the Web technology of the time.” It took a long string of achievements across the computing and software industry—such as the development of Java, Javascript, AJAX, the LAMP stack, and HTML5, not to mention a thousand-fold improvement in CPU speed and memory capacity since the 1990s—to make Chrome OS possible, Schmidt said.

“Think of this as a journey,” Schmidt concluded. “My hope is that when you play with [Chrome OS] and use it every day you’ll realize that it does, in fact, work. There is every reason to believe this is the right time to build these products.”

The Chrome Web App Store. Most people will have to wait until well into 2011 to try out Chrome OS, but today Google launched one big component of the Chrome universe, the Chrome Web Store. As the name implies, it’s a website where users can download hundreds of free and paid browser extensions that are built to provide app-like experiences within the Chrome browser. The store went live today and the apps work on any computer that can run Chrome. But ultimately such apps will become the heart and soul of Chrome OS, and the Chrome Web Store will become the Chrome universe’s central clearinghouse for consumer apps.

At today’s press event Google hosted representatives from The New York Times, EA, and Amazon who demonstrated versions of their Chrome extensions. The New York Times app is a powerful news browser that gives users a variety of ways to view Times content, either online or offline. EA showed off a Chrome version of its popular Poppit casual Web game, which, from the looks of it, has better graphics and faster performance than all previous versions. And Amazon showed off Chrome versions of both Windowshop, an image-heavy rendition of Amazon’s vast product catalogue that is already available for the Apple iPad, and its Kindle app for reading Kindle books (see below for more on e-books).

There’s much to say about the Chrome Web Store, but I’m out of time—I urge you to check it out for yourself at chrome.google.com/webstore.

Gingerbread and the Nexus S. After disappointing sales led Google to kill off its Nexus One Android phone in July, everyone thought Google was getting out of the phone business and leaving the hardware engineering on Android-powered phones to real handset makers. Well, it turns out that was only partly true. The new Nexus S, which will be available in unlocked, carrier-independent form at Best Buy stores in the U.S. starting December 16, was co-developed by Google and Samsung and is intended as the purest expression of Google’s ambitions in the mobile arena.

The strengths of the Android operating system are that it’s basically free, meaning any phone maker can use it to run their hardware, and it’s open, meaning any developer can write and distribute apps for the OS without having to go through rigorous screening like that imposed Apple’s iTunes App Store. The weakness of Android is that handset makers are free to adapt it however they like, meaning the Android user experience is different from phone to phone, and not every app works on every phone.

The Nexus S is “all about bringing the pure Google experience” to consumers, according to the company’s introductory video. That means Google and not the wireless carriers determined what software would be pre-installed on the Nexus (these include not just the Gingerbread version of Android but the Android Market and Google’s versions of calendar, mail, mapping, navigation, search, voice-interaction, and video apps). It also means Google was able to build in features that haven’t turned up in other phones, mostly because the carriers have balked at them—for example, easy voice-over-Internet calling and Wi-Fi hotspot functionality.

Google is billing Gingerbread itself as “the fastest version of Android yet,” with a redesigned virtual keyboard and other user-interface elements that simplify common tasks. Gingerbread includes support for near-field communications (useful for future instant-payment apps that, in effect, turn your phone into a wallet) and video calling using a front-facing camera (which the Nexus S has).

The Google eBookstore. No big surprises here, except perhaps how long it took for this new online bookstore to appear. As part of its Book Search project, which is run largely out of Google’s Cambridge, MA, offices, Google has spent six years scanning old library books—more than 15 million so far. It began making those books searchable—and in the case of many public-domain books, fully browsable—at Google Books. It’s also been working with publishers and authors to settle a contentious legal dispute over copyrights and how the creators of the scanned books should be compensated.

The company has also been negotiating with publishers to sell the e-book versions of current titles. And this week it finally unveiled the Google eBookstore, where U.S. readers can buy e-books, store them permanently in the cloud, and read them on a wide variety of platforms. Google says three million titles are available, including “hundreds of thousands” of commercial titles—some bestsellers among them—for sale.

Google eBooks can be viewed via a Web-based reader; on Android devices; Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch; and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook device and Sony’s line of digital readers (via the Adobe eBook plaform).

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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