Google unveils Chrome OS laptop

Google has officially taken the wraps off its web-based Chrome OS platform, unveiling a pilot programme that offers participants a free - and rather unusual - laptop.

The programme, which is sadly only open to US residents at the present time, offers businesses, end users, educational establishments, and developers the chance to try out Google's cloud-based Chrome OS before its official launch - and comes with a Cr-48 laptop with which to do so.

The 12.1-inch laptop seems, at first, fairly straightforward. While the company hasn't confirmed full hardware specifications, it has stated that the Cr-48 - which is manufactured by an unknown company, although comes with packaging reminiscent of that from HP - features both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity with 100MB of free data on Verizon's US network, an over-sized trackpad, and a solid-state storage device.

The notebook also includes a full-size keyboard, but the company has made some interesting decisions on that front: the keyboard doesn't include function keys, and the caps lock key has been replaced with a dedicated search key.

Google promises eight hours of life from a single charge - and an impressive seven days in standby mode - but there's some bad news: you can't buy the device. Only participants in the Chrome OS pilot programme will be able to get one.

Chrome OS, which was originally expected to launch before the end of the year, is a web-based operating system built around Google's popular Chrome browser. Like the rival Jolicloud system, it offers an HTML5-powered interface and concentrates on applications that run on the web rather than locally - which is why the 3G connectivity in the Cr-48 is so important, as without an Internet connection Chrome OS is likely to be almost completely useless.

Central to Google's vision for Chrome OS is the Chrome Web Store, which offers a one-stop shop - analogous to Apple's App Store - for web-based applications that run on the platform. Live now, the Chrome Web Store isn't restricted to devices running Chrome OS or its open-source cousin Chromium OS, as any system that can run the Chrome web browser is invited.

With ready-to-buy Chrome OS laptops from a range of manufacturers due to launch in the first half of next year, the Cr-48 offers a fascinating glimpse into Google's attack on the laptop world - but only time will tell if it proves as successful as Android's assault on the smartphone market.