As A Stable Build Appears And Avatars Align, A Full Chrome OS Launch Seems Imminent

We’re just a few hours away from the kick off of Google I/O — the search giant’s huge annual conference for all things Google. Well, most things. The social stuff isn’t being talked about. Google TV probably won’t be getting much love either. But everything else appears to be on the table. And naturally, that includes Chrome OS.

Chrome OS has always been an interesting project for Google. For one thing, it would seem to compete with Android, Google’s other operating system (from the looks of it both Android head Andy Rubin and Chrome head Sundar Pichai will play important roles at I/O). But the more pressing issue (at least for now) is that the project has been delayed a few times already — and we’re now a full six months past the initial targeted push to consumers. And while developers have gotten their hands on demo hardware and software, most people have still never seen Chrome OS.

Again, that should change very soon.

Day one of Google I/O will definitely see the launch of Google’s new music service, we now know. And since that’s tied directly to Android, I suspect we’re hear a lot about Android on day one as well. That means day two may be reserved for more about Chrome OS. And given that Samsung is holding some sort of mystery event the evening of day two, this seems like a pretty good bet.

Here’s what we know right now. Google is very close to announcing a stable build of Chrome OS for the first time. How close? Well, “Stable” now appears as an option in the latest builds of Chrome OS being pushed to Cr-48 demo devices. It doesn’t appear that you can enable it yet, but that should change in a couple of days. This will likely technically be version 11 of Chrome OS, which coincides with the stable version numbers for the Chrome browser itself across all platforms. (The dev channel builds of Chrome OS are already on version 12.)

If and when Google announces the first consumer-ready Chrome OS devices, this will be the build that comes on them. Stable builds of the OS showed up almost a month ago in certain Chromium OS builds, but that’s different. This is Chrome OS. Stable appears to be almost here.

Looking over the Issues list for Chromium OS, it would appear that most of the recent ones are UI related. Again, this is a good sign in terms of last-minute things are being worked on leading up to a user-facing launch.

Further hints of important elements of Chrome OS, such as the file manager, have appeared in code check-ins recently as well. It would seem that the avatar work for this system is now ready. And support for USB drives, memory cards, network storage, and maybe even digital cameras is looking good, according to Peter Beverloo (who will soon be the newest member of the Google Chrome team). As he also notes, the default avatars for Chrome OS are now complete. Again, this is vital for a public launch, and clearly quite a bit of thought and work has been put into them.

Trackpad driver issues have been largely resolved at this point (even the Cr-48’s is SO much better than it was when I first reviewed it). This matters because Google is in charge of these drivers across all the Chrome OS devices. Now the team is just arguing about whether or not alt+click should do the same thing as two-finger click, like on Macs (the most recent thought is “no”, why support legacy Mac strokes?).

And then there’s this Samsung event. Like other members of the press, we were invited to attend on Wednesday evening. Samsung is touting it as “a night of firsts”, which could mean anything but seems to imply that it’s not another Android handset. Instead, it could be the first Chrome OS notebook slated for production. There has been a lot of talk of a new machine codenamed “Alex” in the Chromium OS code forums, and supposedly some specs were even temporarily leaked a couple weeks ago.

Will the Samsung Chrome OS device be a 10-inch notebook with a 1.5 Ghz Intel Atom chip that comes with 2 GB of RAM and a Samsung SSD? We’ll soon see. 3G connectivity is also believed to be built-in, just as it is on the Cr-48. But the Samsung model should (hopefully) be much slicker than the Cr-48, which looks sort of like a laptop built for war.

The most recent timetable for a Chrome OS launch was mid-2011. Google has reiterated this to me numerous times over the past six months, and as recently as a few weeks ago. Launching (or at least announcing) something in May certainly works. And it appears that will be happening.

Now onto the next question: price?

We’ll be at Google I/O covering it live all week.