Google has its Steve Jobs moment

It was a dark, cold and rainy day in Silicon Valley when Steve Jobs announced that the colorful new iMac would have no floppy drives. Oh wait, that’s today’s weather. Okay, I don’t actually recall what the weather was like back in 1998 when Apple unveiled the colorful iMac, but the response sure was cold and chilly.

It was a pretty radical decision by Apple since just about every PC shipped back then with a floppy drive, giving users the option to store files for easy backup and transport on the 3.5-inch media.

But Jobs declared the floppy era over, noting the iMac included a USB port for external storage devices such as thumb drives. The iMac was a hit and criticism of the floppy drive decision receded as other manufacturers followed Apple’s lead.

Fast forward 12 years to [Google’s announcement this week of a Chrome OS notebook that relies primarily on Internet connectivity]( to work effectively. In answer to criticism of an earlier preview, Google said it’s working to restore offline access to Google Apps. Also, new apps built for the Chrome OS will run in an offline mode.

But primarily, just as smartphones gets a heck of a lot dumber when they’re not connected, these new notebooks will shine brightest online.


It’s a gutsy decision, though not nearly on the level of Apple’s gamble. If the iMac flopped, that would have been a huge hit to Apple’s credibility and bottom line that could well have affected the viability of the company’s wildly successful diversification (iPod, iPhone and iPad) that followed. Google faces no such risk.

A year ago the company projected new Chrome OS notebooks would be available for this year’s holiday shopping season. But Tuesday Google announced commercial availability has been pushed back to mid-2011, barely nudging the company’s stock. Google of course makes the vast bulk of its billions in profits off of search-related advertising.

Google can also afford to pioneer in areas like this where there’s no danger of cannibalizing an established product; the bigger downside of a failure would be to its reputation than its cash hoard.

And while Google’s at the cutting edge, Tuesday’s announcement was also a Back to the Future moment for CEO Eric Schmidt, who was part of a team at Sun Microsystems that promoted the ill-fated Network Computer idea back in 1983.


“Why should you believe me now?” said Schmidt, at Tuesday’s Chrome OS event.

The Network Computer failed for a number of reasons, with low-speed, dial-up networks frequently cited as the most common. But Schmidt said that in light of the success of the iPhone, iPad and devices based on his company’s Android OS, he sees another flaw in the earlier strategy.

“We couldn’t build great applications at the scale and power of desktop applications,” he said.

“We now have reliable networks and we don’t care about the disk and the whole industry” is working on extending the cloud computing platform, he added, predicting that Chrome OS will emerge as a viable third choice to Windows and the Mac.

With Chrome OS, Google is showing, much like Apple, a willingness to go against conventional, deskbound wisdom. They’ll also have one feature Steve Jobs will probably never endorse.

As Sundar Pichai, Google’s vice-president of product management, noted at the launch event: “Jail-breaking is built-in. You can even put in another operating system.”

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