Would You Accept Google's Free Netbook?

When Google first announced what it called Chrome OS, back in July, it said it would open source the code “later this year”. Last week it made good on that promise with the release of the code for what is now called Chromium OS, and the first analyses have started rolling in. They're mostly tinged with a vague air of disappointment, as if Chromium OS isn't quite as exciting as people hoped. But might Google be aiming much, much higher – and planning to turn the personal computing sector on its head by offering computers that cost nothing?

Open source is clearly an important part of making that happen: it brings the unit cost of software close to zero. But there's still the small matter of the hardware to be paid for. In fact, costs there can also be brought right down, since Chromium is optimised for netbook form factors. As Google noted at the launch of its new operating system:

First, it's all about the web. All apps are web apps. The entire experience takes place within the browser and there are no conventional desktop applications. This means users do not have to deal with installing, managing and updating programs.

That also means you don't need hard discs or even much RAM. It also emphasised:

Most of all, we are obsessed with speed. We are taking out every unnecessary process, optimizing many operations and running everything possible in parallel. This means you can go from turning on the computer to surfing the web in a few seconds. Our obsession with speed goes all the way down to the metal. We are specifying reference hardware components to create the fastest experience for Google Chrome OS.

“Taking out every unnecessary process, optimizing many operations” also implies that you can use lower-cost processors than before. That just leaves the screen, but costs have been plummeting there, too. I'm no engineer, so I find it hard to come up with an exact build cost for a minimalist Chromium OS netbook, but I imagine we're talking ten or twenty dollars, rather than one or two hundred.

Still, even this small cost has to be paid for if the machines are to be given away, and once more, that's where the Web-based nature of the Chrome OS experience comes in. It would trivial for Google to place advertising not just in search pages, but in the applications themselves. Already, it is rolling out ads to more and more of its services. More significantly, perhaps, it has also brought AdSense ads *inside* a desktop application, Google Earth. That makes ads inside word processors and spreadsheets a much smaller step.

Google needs to look at this new market because it has nowhere else to go if it wants to continue growing (as it must do to keep its shareholders happy). It already totally dominates targeted ads of the kind provided by its AdSense. Display advertising on the Web is the next obvious move, and Google recently bought the company Teracent to do just that:

Teracent's technology can pick and choose from literally thousands of creative elements of a display ad in real-time — tweaking images, products, messages or colors. These elements can be optimized depending on factors like geographic location, language, the content of the website, the time of day or the past performance of different ads.

Note, though, that same technology would also work rather well with the content of Web-based *desktop* applications, which are, in effect, private, miniature Web sites.

People already put up with ads alongside Google search results and in Gmail; I don't think many would think twice about the offer of a completely free netbook that had suitably discreet advertising appearing throughout the system: Google could play on the fact that it has so far treated its user with reasonable respect as far as the intrusiveness of ads go. Google has emphasised that Chromium OS is designed as an ancillary computer, not something that is necessarily in your face all the time, so it's not as if you would be bombarded all day long.

But by reducing the cost of this second computer to zero, it could make sure that millions – maybe billions – of people would always have the lightweight, small form-factor Google netbook to hand when they needed to look up something, check Facebook and Twitter, or even knock out a quick document. The unexpected success of netbooks over the last two years shows there is a market for this new kind of computing; giving away systems for free would take it to the next level. Then, gradually, that instant-on, secure, secondary netbook might become the one you spend most time on, and Google's ad revenues would climb even higher....

So, if Google offered you a fast, light, compact netbook for nothing, in exchange for a few ads appearing here and there as you work, would you accept? Or do you think the price you would pay in terms of the company knowing even more about what you do on an hour-by-hour basis would be just too high?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Hmm, I think you are

Anonymous's picture

Hmm, I think you are speaking to the wrong audience. Most computer buffs would probably only get one to crack it. But what about the people who would be most interested in a free computer, ie students, casual computer users who primarily use their machine for browsing (like me) and people in developing countries? I think they would LOVE a free computer. Lets face it, people love free shit.

I would but...

Anonymous's picture

I would take one, but not to use as they would want me to. It would have to be truly free, no strings attached. Then I could see about wiping their OS off, and installing something better. Cloud computing IS NOT the future! At least not to those of us who value privacy, and data security! Neither one of those is possible with cloud computing. Cloud computing? No Thanks! My data will not be assimilated!!!!!!

Giving google data .... for free?

Anonymous's picture

No thank you to most things that google provides. When google was small, this wasn't an issue.

Now that google has so much information about almost everyone, they will soon become the first place that lawyers head for any data related to online personnas. While most of us don't need that protection, for those few who depend on it, I've decided to avoid google-whatever.

OTOH, if google earns $430/yr off my data, perhaps they should purchase it for $100-200/yr and provide all the fiarly nice apps to cover the remaining costs?


quixote's picture

Google isn't "giving" anything for free. They're taking data whether anyone wants them to or not, making billions without giving anything back (you think GOOG's stock price is near $600 because the shareholders think the name is funny?), and all their so-called free apps and OS are just another way to add to their mountain of data gold. They should be paying us, just as the previous comment says.

Sure, I'd take one of their "free" netbooks. But only if I could wipe it and put a real OS on it.

Googlebook will not be for everyone

Anonymous's picture

Just remember, most of the readers of this forum are most likely more technically savvy then most of the computing world, (I hope I am correct with this assumption). So the comments that "I cannot use this.." or "I will not be able to leave this distro or that distro" is irrelevant. Most people will accept a free laptop so they can do all there social networking, emails, etc. These same people will also most likely have either a employee laptop, or a home computer for other tasks. The key is that this might be free....small, portable and allow Google to obtain more market share of our "computing time". The concept of a Google Appliance (see Android for any more questions) is to provide a means for Google to access more markets. They basically have hooks in EVERY way we communicate..... Search, Voice, Chat, Wave, Phone etc... so it only makes sense for them to utilize open source, eat the initial cost of deploying low price hardware, and get more of our precious time. Netbooks are similar... albeit you can run desktop apps, if you are anything above a casual computer user you will require a more robust machine. And for internet access.. you still need that for POP/IMAP mail.. Outlook sucks without an internet connection.. and if I am right there is an offline mode for GMAIL, basically you have access to all your email while offline.

When and where can I get one

Anonymous's picture

When and where can I get one of these free netbooks?


Christopher Steffen's picture

I would ABSOLUTELY take (and use) a free google netbook. No doubt.

Is this ...

McWolf_B's picture

The concept of cloud computing looks like the old concept of "dumb" terminals, and google's OS is just to bust it? or is just my imagination?

Not dumb terminals, they're just a bit slow :)

Anonymous's picture

It's a bit like Sun's Sun Ray system - the terminals aren't dumb, precisely - they have reasonable internal processing power, but the apps are downloaded from a server or servers as needed (and run locally) rather than stored locally.

Upside - you don't need to worry about maintaining/upgrading/etc. the app.

Downside - you have no control over it at all. It could just vanish tomorrow, and you'll have no recourse.

The only obvious issues with Chrome OS are the lack of a native email client and the (possible) inability to save anything locally - which is a bit of a problem if you've just downloaded a mp3 audio file, or a mp4 video, or whatever - and want to move it to another computer, or a mp3 player, or a set top media player, or something similar via a flash memory stick.

Good point, but...

Dr G's picture

You make a good point, however that's not how the Sun Rays work at all. They don't have an application streamed to them which is then run locally, they are essentially nothing more than terminals displaying the output of applications that actually run on the server. Indeed, the attractive thing about the Sun Rays is exactly this - they don't actually contain any code (other than a tiny bootstrap loader enough to load what is essentially a proprietary version of a VNC-like client) - it's all run on the server.

I would imagine if it has no

Anonymous's picture

I would imagine if it has no or very little on board storage they will probably provide an SD card slot and/or a USB port for a thumb drive.

You can run Gmail in "Local" mode

Anonymous's picture

You can run GMAIL in local mode. Basically you can download all your email to your hard drive and if you do not have an internet connection you still have access to your email, much in the same way if you were to use any other POP/IMAP client. It is called Offline mode.

Gmail is not the only email system that needs to work

Anonymous's picture

I am familiar with Gmail's offline mode, but it's not a viable option for people that need to access email from non-Gmail pop3/imap servers (and lots of people need to do this). So, for many people, the inability to access non-Gmail email servers is probably going to be an issue. Rather than attempting to strong-arm people into using Gmail, Google will get a better reception for Chrome OS if they make Gmail one of your options, rather than the only option.

I'd take it

Prime's picture

Sure why not? be safer than carrying around my near 400 dollar netbook which I wouldn't give up either. I could even see this slowly taking over dominance is internet access gets easier and faster....

Question is though if Google does this, it could seriously hurt Microsoft, and and well then you'd have company with dominance online and offline..... so to speak

POP3/Imap and ability to save to USB stick

Anonymous's picture

Chrome OS is essentially worthless to me if it doesn't include a native POP3/IMAP email client (not a web app), and also support the ability to download and save files to a USB stick.

Without these two things, the Chrome OS is worthless to me - and I wouldn't take (or want, or have a use for) a Chrome OS netbook (free or otherwise).

Free laptop? i don't see a

Anonymous's picture

Free laptop? i don't see a dilemma...

No: I need in my netbook 1

Anonymous's picture

I need in my netbook 1 off line app, a music player, and Skype, or something like it. This how I currant use my easy peasy / eeePC 701 and these first generation netbooks can be had for $100-$125 used.
Other than that everything I do is google apps, mail, reader and the rest of there online offerings. If this thing is just an iphone without the phone I think it will flop.


Omegamormegil's picture

You don't need a music player much, when you have Grooveshark. If you are unfamiliar, you can listen to any song, as often as you want, for free - legally. www.grooveshark.com

I don't even bother to keep music on my computer anymore, since I'm online all the time anyway.

True, Grooveshark isn't as good as an offline music app, but it makes up for it with convenience and having access to more or less anything you might want to listen to for free.

Maybe Google will buy them next.

Sweet, thanks

JBloodthorn's picture

Never heard of Grooveshark before. I just tried it out, and decided that I agree with you. Thank you for saving me some HDD space!


dave ginsburg's picture

i agree with you. now, it would be interesting if the oft-rumored google-phone took the same approach.... content and application virtualization. you wouldn't need a lock and wipe, would you, since all data would be within the cloud. and yes, i have confidence that google wouldn't permit a repeat of the sidekick fiasco.

Why would Google offer the netbooks for free?

matzahboy's picture

There is no reason why Google would offer the netbooks for free. It is easy enough to install an OS other than Chrome OS (such as an ad-free one).


Anonymous's picture

If something like this were to happen, I wouldn't be surprised if they "sold" it as a subscription service, similar to mobile phones. Pay a monthly fee, + a little more for specific applications/content.

You can then do whatever you want to the netbook, you'll still be paying.

Not necessarily a problem...

Epicanis's picture

If the netbooks (or "smartbooks" or whatever they want to rebrand them as this month) are based on ARM or MIPS processors, the "other OS" would more or less HAVE to be Linux. Sure, people like me would gladly reformat or repartition a Google® netbook to install a full-powered linux distribution, but people like me are a small minority compared to the number of more typical users who'd just use the Google environment.

Personally, I'd bet more on a "subsidized" price rather than literally free, just to provide enough of a cost to keep people like me from ordering 50 of them to reformat and costing Google too much - I'd guess $40-60 price point would be about right. I'd still get one or two (If I got two, I'd likely leave one as-is to use as Google intended, and reformat the other...) at that price-point.

What about meshing all these google netbooks

Anonymous's picture

Then if all these google netbook mesh together to create a private wireless network and through google with free internet access, then we can ditch our isp and landline all together. How good will that be?

Isn't that how OLPC works?

Anonymous's picture

Lots of good points made here. A linux distro can be made very small and fast and if the hardware is optimized for a lightweight distro, connection speeds wouldn't have to be as fast as some folks here seem. The speed of the hardware/software on SSD and the light os can make up for less than optimum wireless speeds.

I currently use an eeePC 90% of the time and fire up an iMac for the heavy lifting. Wouldn't have to be free, IMHO. at $49, it would be a no brainer just to have access on a machine I wouldn't have to worry about getting lost, stolen or broken.

Seeing that Chrome is already being open sourced, you can bet that if people want to use this device to serve the function of netbooks, iPods, Skype or voip speaker phones, developers and hardware oems would find it relatively easy to do.

What about people with slow internet connections

Sudeep Mukherjee's picture

I think this would not apply to people with slow internet connections.

I have just a 256kbps connection which is too damn slow. A normal linux distro of 700mb takes at the very least 8 hours to download.

This OS is definitely for the developed world.


Rich_Roast's picture

A whole eight hours?! How the modern world has rendered us impatient.

If it's restrictive costs associated with bandwidth more sympathy would be merited, but if it's just that relatively short length of time have a download management application chug away on it and/or leave the machine running for a night. I've downloaded larger files than a Linux dist iso on dialup.

You're not supposed to download it.

aap's picture

Is your connection too slow for web browsing? Nobody expects you to download their distro. It will come pre-installed on this alleged Google netbook.

(But for tinkerers, I would expect their distro .ISO if it exists to be a lot smaller than 700MB since all it would contain is a kernel and a browser and not much else. I'm oversimplifying of course.)

A fast connection is needed for the WebApps

Renich's picture

Remember that every "application" will be inside Chromium... He's right; he needs a fast connection in order to benefit.

It's hard to be free... but I love to struggle. Love isn't asked for; it's just given. Respect isn't asked for; it's earned!
Renich Bon Ciric


some objections

Nonymous's picture

Problem: Google's image is now that of a company producing things that work. Bombing the world with cheap and therefore injury-prone hardware is going to obliterate that image, even if the hardware comes for free.

Not to mention the environmental damage of handing out free hardware to all takers, since the market for free can never be saturated.

why injury-prone?

Glyn Moody's picture

but I agree the environmental aspect is a problem: maybe they could recycle old netbooks?

I'm guessing a trade-in/up

cwrinn's picture

I'm guessing a trade-in/up policy. Given their less intensive hardware needs, producing a "greener" netbook would be little issue for them, as well as "less expensive". They'd be able to recycle older books if for nothing else than raw material harvesting, but one would have to justify the cost of that as well.

On the point of quality and their image. If it is quality hardware with a quality OS running a quality browser running quality web apps, where is their image injured?


Renich's picture

make them eatable? ;)

It's hard to be free... but I love to struggle. Love isn't asked for; it's just given. Respect isn't asked for; it's earned!
Renich Bon Ciric


Gresham's Law Applies Here As Well...This Shall Come To Pass!

John and Dagny Galt's picture

Gresham's Law Applies Here As Well...This Shall Come To Pass!


Millions of average, everyday people will flock to these devices much the same as they have with cellphones, PDAs, ipods, GPS, and bluetooth.

Welcome to the Cyborg Nation!

BladeRunner 2012!

John and Dagny Galt
Starving The Monkeys, Owners Manual For The Universe!(tm)


Oh Yeah, bring it on! (Double thumbs up)

Thary's picture

Sounds very interesting, initial skeptisms & personal opinions aside, this is Google we're talking about. They dont do half measures & have brought in some spectacular products on board (Search, Gmail, Google News etc) & tweaked existing products to take it to the next level (Google Earth, maps, Youtube, Voice). Considering all this I'm sure the finished product (even with its traditional 'beta' tag) would be worth its weight in Gold & is surely worth waiting it out. Cost is definitely a factor these days & someone offering a superior product at a very low cost is definitely going to be in my shopping list (ads not withstanding). These ads btw have pointed me useful sources/offers in the past -so not something that i'd stop responding to. And considering the billions Google makes predominantly from them, Im sure there are a bunch of folks out there across the globe that find them useful at some point in time. Economics aside,this is very handy & exciting proposition in the years to come & Im glad Google is leading it.
Chromium netbooks - I'm game! (back to the future now)

Whats keeping me from...

Anonymous's picture

What about a free offering would keep me from going to a place that has these and saying "I need 10". Then i go home and throw them all away and go back the next asking for another 10 and throw those away too. I doubt these will be truly free and will require some sort of account to get one. Then my backpack gets stolen for reasons other than this free netbook and I need another one. What if i get one then end up never using it which doesnt make google back its money on the device for ads.

I doubt there will even be a free device like this they can give out.

Yes, you're right...

Glyn Moody's picture

these kind of issues need sorting out, but I don't think they're insurmountable. Yes, you might have to register somehow, maybe one netbook per Gmail address (mandatory, of course). As for losing it, well maybe you could take out insurance for a trivial sum.

It has been done before

Rip Linton's picture

This is not a new concept.

Netpliance offered the i-opener for $99 and hoped you would use their dialup service for a monthly fee.

Virgin Media offered the Webplayer for free. They also gave you free dialup service. You just had to agree to use the service for at least 10 hours per month.

Both of these devices ran a custom GNU/Linux OS. And, both showed advertising on the screen at all times.

Both were also failures. The services were cut off after only a few months.

But, the hardware was fair, for the time frame, (around 2000 - 2001.) I still have, and use, both devices. But the custom OS has been replaced by Debian.

So, as I posted on Linux Today's link to this article, I welcome a free Netbook from Google. I am sure it will be a great tool in the future.

I dunno, it seems like it

Anonymous's picture

I dunno, it seems like it would be extremely difficult to do this. I accidentally spill my coffee on it and it shorts out. I am now denied the ability to get a replacement. If i have to insure it then im paying for it. I can see many many many people that are the target audience for this product going in and saying "Im going to get me a free netbook!" Then when to go to check out they are told that if they ever want the ability to get another one in case something happens they will need to buy this 100$/year insurance policy. Just about everyone will accept that and pay for it not realizing that they are now paying for something advertised as free.

The other thing too is that it would have to be available in stores. Registering online to receive a product then paying "shipping and handling" is still not free. Its very easy to say its going to cost 50$ to ship and handle when it really only costs 20$ and the extra 30$ goes to google to make up some of the cost.

Am i arguing that this would be cheap? Not at all. But it needs to displayed as that. Its cheap, but not free. So questions like "Would you accept ads if you got a free netbook?" are irrelevant. Change the question to "Would you accept ads if you got a CHEAP netbook?" then you will see many different responses than what you say right now.

I don't think so

Glyn Moody's picture

I'm positing that with Google's scale it could make a netbook for $20, $30 soon. The insurance on that would be perhaps a few pounds/dollars/euros per year - still a great offer I think. As for delivery, well, we have Apple stores, Microsoft stores, why not Google stores - gotta think big here...

I would get one because this

savethechicken's picture

I would get one because this is a NETBOOK not a PC. They are focusing on netbooks not PC's at the moment. Everyone here is talking about what they use or have to have on their laptops and desktop PC's not what they use on their Netbooks. Honestly, most Netbooks are dumbed down laptops and are essentially just terminals to the internet anyway. Remember I said MOST not all.
But this would not be my primary computer, where I would do all my main work. I need a true Linux environment or Windows environment to do my work. But for something to get online and just the basics, that I can take everywhere with my I would get one of these if it were really cheap or even FREE. I don't have to click on the ads I dont now so nothing would change.

Sign me up for 6!

Anonymous's picture

I have privacy concerns, but that's what passwords and encryption are for. This potential product addresses another security concern altogether. Theft of hardware. If anyone can get one for free, then no one will be likely to steal it from me. My expensive laptop sits at home unless I really need it. This could be the casual, bring-it-everywhere device. Ultimate convenience!

interesting point

Glyn Moody's picture

hadn't thought of that angle.

To second a Slashdot posting:

Anonymous's picture

I'd take one, as long as it wasn't too difficult to wipe it and install Ubuntu.

I imagine trying to install Ubuntu...

Glyn Moody's picture

...would just brick such a system, for obvious reasons.

I don't think it's so obvious

PStryder's picture

Think about it, even if you install Ubuntu, Google still wins. Where are you going to search? Google.

You'll check your e-mail at GMail.

You'll look up directions on Google Maps.

Etc, etc, ad nauseum.

And the number of people installing Ubuntu? 10% of users, maybe?

It's still a win overall for Google.


Glyn Moody's picture

but imagine they'd take measure to stop it anyway, because once the hardware is liberated it could be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes that government love to legislate against...

But... Glyn...

Bill Childers's picture

What can be bricked can be unbricked. Look at the hackability of the Google G1 phone, for instance. I think there will be a whole new stream of "jailbreaks" around a free Google Netbook.

Bill Childers is the Virtual Editor for Linux Journal. No one really knows what that means.


Glyn Moody's picture

Supposing Google decides to be slightly evil, and gets the hardware to do a cryptographic check of the operating system before allowing it to run (DRM, effectively)? Maybe still crackable, but becoming slightly inconvenient, no?

Easier than that

aap's picture

All they have to do is give it just enough hardware to run Chrome, and not enough to run other OS's with acceptable performance. I assume there won't be enough disk space for a regular Ubuntu install.