google-robotGoogle may have announced its Chrome OS operating system a year and a half ago, but it looks like the company’s executives are still wrapping their heads around its significance and potential. At least, that’s what I took away from a New York Times article about the OS.

Acer recently told Engadget that it won’t be releasing Chrome OS devices until 2011 but that Google has something up its sleeve for December of this year. The Times says that’s when Google plans to release a Google-branded Chrome device, which will be manufactured by another company.

With the launch so close, you’d think Google would have a clear message about how the operating system fits into its product lineup, particularly since it already has Android. At almost every Google press event involving Android and/or Chrome, someone will inevitably ask how Android stacks up against Chrome OS. At first, it seemed like they were obviously different, since Android was developed for mobile phones while Chrome was built for netbooks (low-end laptops). Still, Google has suggested that it wants to take both operating systems beyond their initial devices, for example with Android-based tablets.

Back in June, even Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer admitted confusion about Chrome vs. Android. Ray Ozzie, who was then the company’s chief software architect, argued that Chrome was a bet on the future, because it’s all about the Internet cloud, while Android is more old-fashioned.

Here’s chief executive Eric Schmidt’s latest attempt at an answer — it’s from the Times article but echoes statements he made at the Web 2.0 Summit last week:

We don’t want to call the question and say this one does one thing, this one does another. So far the model seems to be the Android solution is particularly optimized for things that involve touch in some form and Chrome OS appears to be for keyboard-based solutions.

That’s one answer, I suppose, but it lacks the pizazz of Ozzie’s visionary language, and it also doesn’t have much to do with the initial pitch of Chrome as an operating system fully based in the cloud — i.e., one where everything resides online, and there are no applications or files on your computer — suggesting the keyboard bit is almost an afterthought.

Why the switch? I’m guessing that on the one hand, Google doesn’t want to pitch Android as an anti-cloud operating system, and on the other hand, the company might have a hard time selling Chrome OS on the no-native-apps angle (at one point in the article, Google’s Sundar Pichai said people’s first impression of Chrome OS will be, “It’s just a browser,” to which he says, “Exactly.”) when app-dominated operating systems like Android and Apple’s iOS are on the rise.

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