TORONTO - For consumers who find they really only use a computer to get online and not much else, Google now has the Chromebook, a brand of Internet-only computers officially introduced in Canada on Tuesday.
Chromebooks look like standard laptops but don't come loaded with a version of Windows or a Mac operating system. They run on Google's Chrome OS, a streamlined platform with the web browser as the main attraction.
They're being pushed as a low-cost device — they start at about $250 — for users who spend most of their time on a computer using the Internet, and therefore don't need the processing power to run full-blown software applications. They can connect to the web via WiFi or mobile networks.
Story continues below slideshow
The now-ubiquitous Gmail -- Google's email product -- was unlike any previous email service when it was introduced in 2004. It featured way more storage space (1 GB per user), search capability within your email, and conversion view, which groups together all replies to the original message to keep the conversation in a single thread. It also included a built-in chat service.
Google worked with NASA researchers to create a detailed, digital map of the planet Mars. Google Mars works similarly to Google Earth -- except you're navigating around a far-off planet. Users can explore regions, mountains, plains, canyons, craters and other elements.
Google Sky, the outer space version of Google Earth, is a way to explore the sky from your computer or mobile device. Click the Sky button on the Google Earth toolbar and you can see constellations, the moon, the planets, and user guides giving information on each. And, of course, there's a search bar to locate whatever part of the sky you're looking for. If you're unfamiliar, this YouTube video gives a good guide.
Google Reader is a web-based news aggregator. It utilizes RSS feeds and included sharing capability until October, 2011, when this feature was disabled and replaced with a Google+ button.
Google Moderator ranks user-submitted questions that come in during an online discussion. It was first created to help moderate the company's tech talks, and was later used by President Barack Obama's team to sift through Americans' questions for the newly elected president. It works like this: Participants can submit questions or ideas, and other participants vote on them. This crowdsourcing technique helps identify the questions and ideas with the most support or interest from the group.
Google Body allowed users to navigate through 3D anatomical models of the human body. Google Body ceased operation in Oct. 2011 -- when Google Labs shut down -- and will relaunch as Zygote Body. Zygote Body will be a searchable, interactive 3D model of human anatomy. Check out this video for a look at the former Google Body.
Google Docs, a web-based office suite that includes word documents, spreadsheets and other formats, was innovative for a few reasons. One, the documents are accessible from any computer or device. Two, they're collaborative: You can share documents with coworkers or friends and read or edit them simultaneously. The docs also automatically save as you go, protecting the work from browser crashes or other accidents. Google Docs is a combination of two previous company projects: Google Spreadsheets and a web-based processor, Writely. There have been several iterations in the past five years, with the mostly completed version announced in 2010.
Google Goggles is on the cutting-edge of visual search. The product enables users to search with images instead of words -- basically you take a picture of something, and Google will recognize it and pull up search results on it. See a demonstration here.
A November New York Times piece gave a glimpse into Google's super-secret "Google X" lab, where the company is dreaming up innovative ideas for the future, like elevator that goes to outer space, driverless cars, and all manner of robots. In January 2012, Google announced an experimental lecture forum called "Solve For X," with an aim at solving "moonshot thinking." As Google explained in a blog post, the project will "take on global-scale problems, define radical solutions to those problems, and involve some form of breakthrough technology that could actually make them happen."
Stripping away the convoluted operating system and setting things up so users can jump right into the web makes the experience simpler and faster, said Google's Caesar Sengupta, product management director.
"The whole idea is basically to have a computing experience that's extremely simple, that's very stable, very secure, and sort of just gets out of your way," Sengupta said.
Chromebooks turn on quickly like mobile devices — although they still take a few seconds to boot up after being shut down. There's a store with a selection of simple programs and games to access, and web-based applications — such as the Google Docs suite to create documents and spreadsheets — run smoothly within the Chrome browser and store files online. Consumers who have been frustrated with the limitations of tablets, and miss a keyboard, may find Chromebooks are more suitable substitutes for a full-blown laptop. Asus, HP and Samsung all plan to release Chromebooks in Canada.
While some users will be uncomfortable with the concept of an Internet-only machine — although you can use some apps while offline — Google saw a growing demand for it.
"Users today, particularly the younger generation, are very web savvy ... the current generation of people or kids are very used to having stuff in the cloud, they prefer that model," said Sengupta.
"For many people they won't move completely (to the Chromebook concept) but it's a fantastic second computer.... But from our point of view we absolutely feel this is where modern-day usage is heading, this is where users are heading, so that's what we're building towards."