December 3, 2009, 7:18 am
Some of you might be too young to remember the space race: the frenzied decades of the '50s and '60s where the US and the USSR poured massive resources to be the First [Anything] in space. But all of us might have a chance to watch some of this in microcosm as OEM vendors jockey for the coveted "first Chrome OS netbook shipped" position.
The fervor over Google's new web-oriented operating system is surprising, even for ardent Linux supporters. After all, it's only been a couple of weeks since Chrome OS was open sourced and after personally test-driving it on a virtual machine, I can tell you that while very interesting, this is still a very young system.
But since the November 19 release of the ChromiumOS source code, we have already seen:
- By end of day on November 19, virtual machines of Chrome OS were available.
- On November 25, Dell technology strategist Doug Anson released a Live USB image designed to run specifically atop Dell's Mini 10v netbook.
- On December 2, Taiwanese tech outlet DigiTimes reported Acer's Chairman J.T. Wang being confident that his company would be the first out the door with a Chrome OS netbook--a product Acer has been working on since July 2009, and plans to release by the second half of 2010.
That's a lot of ground covered in just two weeks, but that's the kind of excitement the Chrome OS offering generates. And Acer is not the only player in the netbook race: in July, when Chrome OS was first announced, "ASUS... Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba" were also announced as hardware partners.
If you're wondering where Dell is on this list, you're not the only one. Anson's release of the Mini 10v image was strictly unofficial, and to date Dell has made no official announcements on its plans for Chrome OS, other than they're evaluating it.
Dell's hesitancy seems a bit strange at first glance. After all, this is a hot new operating system designed by Google, which has a decent track record for the software it launches. And Chrome OS has a strong pedigree: it's got Ubuntu and Moblin inside. Dell has released products with both of these technologies, so what's not to like?
In this case, it may be just ordinary caution. It's no secret that Dell, like most other OEMs, got hurt by the combination of the economic recession and the huge disappointment known as Windows Vista. On the same day the ChromiumOS source code was opened, Dell reported a 54 percent drop in their third-quarter profits, with a 15 percent cut in net revenue. This is enough to make any company gun-shy in venturing into a new product line--particularly a product line like netbooks, which have lower selling prices and therefore don't contribute as much to profits as, say, servers. Adding to this caution is Dell's previously stated goal of cutting $4 billion in costs.
The good news for Dell (and the rest of the hardware vendors) is that there may be signs of an impending recovery in the server market: IDC has reported this week that while server shipments fell, it was not as hard as they fell in 2Q. In this most recent quarter, server shipments were down 17.9 percent; much better than the 30.1 percent drop in the second quarter. 3Q shipments rose 12.4 percent over 2Q, according to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker, a clear sign of some growth.
This is not out-of-the-woods news yet, but if this continues and becomes a trend, Dell could see a much-welcome stabilization of its server business, and an influx of revenue that might make them more receptive to jumping on the Chrome OS bandwagon.
And, it's not like Dell is out of the netbook game entirely. As mentioned, Dell has released Ubuntu-loaded netbooks, including the first commercial product shipping with Moblin v2.
In the meantime, Acer is staking its claim to be the first Chrome OS netbook distributor next year. With this much commercial interest, Google's decision to open the code at this juncture is a good one, as even more innovation will be pumped into the new operating system as launch approaches. Look for a lot of new features and new vendor participants in 2010.
The race is indeed on, and it will not be boring.