The Digital Skeptic: Google Plays Apple Dress-Up

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- These days, tech companies are like the kids: They love to dress up like someone they're not. Case in point is Google ( GOOG) and its seeming obsession with putting on the shoes, socks and you-know-what of Apple ( AAPL).

Google's Apple-like wardrobe hunt is nothing new. Its simply disastrous attempts at iPhone-like mixed hardware and software tools such as the Nexus One cellphone started back in 2010. In May, Google took major surgery to itself in its effort to play the role of an integrated device maker like Apple. It coughed up $12.5 billion for the Motorola Mobility division -- you know, the unit of Motorola ( MOT) that makes the Droid smartphone and other tools that move around.

And starting last year, the company's most important mixed hardware and software play began when it shipped its line of so-called Chromebook notebook computers. The conceit here is the "operating system" on this PC is Google's otherwise efficient browser Chrome. Boot up a Chromebook and you get mostly that -- a notebook that runs Chrome. Other browsers are not directly supported and the computer is tied directly to one's Google identity.

Samsung and Acer make such 3-pound units. Battery life runs six hours and pricing is aggressive. Entry-level units can be had for $299.

To Google's credit -- considering how dubious I am about this business of late -- it arranged for me to demo a recent-model Samsung Chromebook. I have been living with this machine for several weeks and I would say that without question the Chromebook is no disaster. Use it as intended and it is most definitely a fast, easy-to-use PC.

But the core concept of this device -- that is, what it wants markets to think it is -- is so unlike the rest of Google that investors have to wonder if this company is playing a dangerous game of dress-up.

Putting on Apple's clothes
There issue here is intent. On one hand, Google is supposedly a culture of openness. Just read through corporate statements such as its Ten Things We Know To Be True: "Democracy on the Web works" or "The need for information crosses all borders." You get the idea.

This open approach stands in strict opposition to the as-pioneered-by-Steve Jobs "my way or the highway" vibe at Apple. Apple devices tend to be about exclusivity: An iTunes account is strictly connected to a given iPod. iPads have unique plugs and connectors. Much of Apple's software runs poorly on non-Apple equipment, if it runs at all. Again, you get the idea.

But somehow, Google's passion for openness comes to an Apple-like halt with the Chromebook. This thing is as closed and tightly managed as anything Apple has ever produced.

First off, the branding for the Chromebook comes right out of Cupertino. Wanna buy one? Head to the Chromebook website, start shopping. But wait ... where are we? This page is eerily like the MacBook website. White layouts, Apple-like font. And nearly identical brand positioning.

Quick, tell me, did Google or Apple make the following product claims? "Hassles not included." "Find files fast." Or my favorite, "Security built in." (For the record it's Google, Apple, Google.)

And the Apple-like, do-it-our way vibe runs right through the heart of the Chromebook. If you are a Google Apps shop like mine and you are connected to the Web, this thing boots right up into your company Google Identity. Love it.

But you are not free to make your own choices. You work as Google wants you to, meaning you better be online. With sketchy or no connectivity, which is the case when I'm traveling in Maine, the offline functionality is terribly limited.

Next, Chrome is a great browser. But it's basically the only browser, which means if you have an issue with Chrome -- for example a plug-in goes bad, or some sort of error occurs -- there is an eerie, Apple-like locked-down feel to solving Chrome's problems.

Makes the Mac Look Open
That smacks investors right into some grim big-think. No question, Google is involved with a perfectly reasonable PC. The Chromebook is well-priced, feature-packed and certainly works for business use. But it represents such a fundamental departure for Google that investors would be crazy not to seriously recalibrate how they view this business.

Is the giant, decentralized Google -- which clearly struggles to stay on message -- trying to be the world-conquering software giant that makes all data useful, such as with Google Earth? Or is it an elite hardware maker looking to move units such as the Google Chromebook?

Corporate contradictions such as these are not what investors want to see. We are like parents. Beyond that cute dress-up phase, nothing disappoints or angers us more than watching somebody try to be somebody they are not.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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