But will anyone care? Google's blind spot -- or vision -- is of a world where nothing is local. Everything runs on a server and is accessed over the Internet. Thus, every device is merely a wireless pane of glass. Google of course favors its own cloud services -- the Android 2.2 OS is highly biased to Google's services rather than to traditional ones, for example -- and Chrome OS is likely to be the frame for using Google's services.
That myopia around its own offerings and the pure "everything in the cloud" approach likely will limit the appeal of the Chrome OS, at least initially. But I think Google has a key insight that mobility means more computing happens off the device, whether in the cloud or on a company's servers. Chances are, it will be a mix, and Google's challenge is to not impose a pure cloud approach on a heterogeneous world.
Google also has an internal challenge: the relationship between Android OS and Chrome OS. Android OS allows the heterogeneity of cloud apps, server-based apps, and local apps that Chrome OS lacks. That's why I believe almost every major hardware vendor has decided to produce slates (I'm reserving "tablet" for Microsoft's dead vision) using Android. It's also why Cisco is relying on Android to power its forthcoming Cius business slate, why Intel is porting Android to its own Atom chips, and why Google is hedging its bets by aiding others' Android slate efforts.
Even if a pure cloud approach is the ultimate future (and I don't think it is), the present is a mix of computing approaches that slates need to support. For everyone but Apple, the only game in town for today's reality is Android. Though HP seems to be betting that WebOS will provide it the same platform advantage without being a me-too vendor, it will take a good year before HP can do something with WebOS; by then, it may not matter.
Apple's vision: A new computing platform
That mix of local, cloud, and server-based capabilities is of course what Apple's iPad is all about, and it's why I believe the iPad has been so successful. Sure, Apple's design and mystique have helped capture people's imaginations, but the enthusiasm in decidedly non-Apple strongholds -- health care and field forces, for example -- shows that Apple is on to something bigger than media slate for watching videos, playing games, listening to music, and tweeting and texting.
The iPad is clearly skewed to consumer users with an entertainment bent. Apple has long mined that market, which is big and full of discretionary dollars. But the iPad also has some serious business apps. For enterprises, Citrix Receiver lets iPad users run Windows apps from the data center, giving users secure access to corporate apps already being provisioned to remote employees. For a broader set of businesses, the iPad has a small but growing set of real productivity apps such as Quickoffice, Documents to Go, OmniGraffle, OmniGraphSketcher, WebEx, and Things. Then there are all those IT-specific iPad apps and iPhone apps that also work on the iPad.
As Apple did with the iPhone and iPod Touch, I believe it will do with the iPad: Capture the hearts on individuals and quietly add key business capabilities that cause businesses to accept the iPad due to employee pressure, then embrace it as they realize there's something truly new here.
The iPad is not merely a pane of glass to cloud services. It is not a Mac or PC in a different box. (Not using Mac OS X for the iPad was a brilliant way to make that clear.) It is not just a wireless browser for websites, video, and audio (as some of the first knockoff competitors were -- remember them?). It's a portable computing engine that becomes an individual's personal hub to everything.
I'm not suggesting the iPad is perfect; it is not. But it introduces the concept of a computing hub for everything you might do -- PCs are still divided between personal and business uses -- as either an adjunct device (such as for business travelers and pharmacy reps) or as a primary device (such as for field technicians, nurses, and college students). It supports most of the apps and services that people use on both traditional PCs and enterprise servers, and brings in new sensor-based information (geolocation, compass, proximity sensor, light sensor, camera, and microphone, for example) whose context allows new types of information personalization and field applications as yet to be created.
That vision is the future of computing. Apple gets it. Cisco seems to get it. Google may or may not get it. HP and HTC might. Acer, Asustek, Dell, Nokia, and Research in Motion probably do not. Microsoft does not. Users will.
This article, "What the tablet wars are really about," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.