Google's big week: Nexus S, Honeycomb tablets, Chrome OS laptops, and eBooks to boot

We gotta hand it to Google: if its goal was to own the technology news cycle for 48 hours, mission accomplished. The Mountain View-based company spent the first two days this week laying out pretty much every big announcement it possibly could: a new flagship phone coming next week (the Nexus S), a new Android build (2.3 Gingerbread), a preview of the next Android build (Honeycomb) on a never-before-seen Motorola tablet, the debut of its cloud-based laptop platform (Chrome OS) with hardware, and a giant plunge into the growing e-book market -- and that isn't everything. We've done our best to condense all the days' highlights into something easier to digest, so read on for a recap on all things Google!

Nexus S and Android 2.3 Gingerbread

We've been following the Nexus S saga for just under a month now, when we first broke news of its existence (and even published the first pictures of the device). This past Monday, Google officially announced the Nexus S, a 4-inch WVGA "contour display" phone featuring triband HSPA with AWS support (no HSPA+, seemingly), 5 megapixel camera, 16GB of onboard storage, 512MB of RAM, a 1GHz Cortex A8-based Hummingbird processor (similar to the iPhone 4), and Android 2.3 Gingerbread (more on that later). In a rare move, the Nexus S also supports Near Field Communication (NFC), which works to send and / or receive information when within about four inches of the target. There's not a lot of practical use for it in the US right now, but Google's hoping to jumpstart the trend. Check out our full preview here.
The biggest draw of the Nexus S, though, would have to be Android 2.3 Gingerbread (a perfect codename for the season). The latest update improves upon 2.2 Froyo with some subtle UI enhancements, including a keyboard that now supports multitouch and finger-sized markers for highlighting text / better copy-and-paste. There's also tightly-integrated VoIP support, video calling support via a front camera, gyroscope support, NFC integration, and a built-in task manager (finally). Most notably, the new build is being called out as significantly better for game development, tying in nicely with all these Sony Ericsson rumors we've been hearing as of late. Nexus One users, who seem prone to always receiving Android updates before most, should receive Gingerbread soon, and come CES / Mobile World Congress, we'd be surprised if we didn't find dozens of devices running the OS.
The Nexus S is officially rolling out December 16th to Best Buy stores in the US (and December 20th at Best Buy and Carphone Warehouse retailers in the UK), subsidized at $199 with a two-year T-Mobile contract or $529 unlocked.

Google eBooks

Also that morning, Google, always with its finger on the pulse of our ever-evolving digital lifestyles, has decided to take a wild stab at this nascent market, and launch Google eBooks. Formerly known as Google Editions, the Google eBooks ecosystem is actually a pretty grand gesture, and seems to combine most of the positives of the primary e-book contenders (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple, naturally), while skimping on the UI flourishes, in traditional Google fashion. Books you buy are stored in the cloud, with your progress synced Whispersync-style, and can be read on your choice of native Android, iPhone, or iPad apps; from your browser; or on any device that supports the Adobe Digital Editions DRM for PDF and ePub files, which includes the B&N Nook and the Sony Reader (and plenty of other devices). Google is also trading on its vast repository of public domain books, with 3 million free eBooks on offer at its Google eBookstore, in addition to traditional paid fare. It's certainly a crowded market, full of sharp elbows, but it seems Google is having no trouble adjusting.

Honeycomb and the mystery Motorola tablet

Later that evening, it was time for Google's Engineering VP / Android mastermind Andy Rubin to take the stage at the D: Dive Into Mobile conference (check out our liveblog for play-by-play from the event). Surprising to us, Rubin said -- after some prodding from Walt and Kara -- that Android is indeed profitable by itself. He attributed a lot of the platform's success to its openness, so much so that he even seemed to support Verizon's decision to swap out Bing as a "feature" of the open platform. "Well that's consumer choice, they vote with their wallet on one side and their feet on the other" -- we have a hard time pinning the responsibility here on the choice-deprived consumer (as opposed to the overzealous carrier), but that's just us.

But then there was the hardware. Rubin had a Nexus S on hand, but by then our focus was on his second surprise: a prototype Motorola tablet running the next version of Android, codenamed Honeycomb (Stingray, is that you?). The button-less device has video chat, an NVIDIA processor, a "dual core 3D processor," and a more desktop-like UI that better caters to the tablet environment than current Android, including a bottom dock of icons (Gmail, for example, looked a lot more like its iPad counterpart). Rubin used the tablet to show off the latest Google Maps for Mobile update, which has dynamically-rendered vector drawings of cityscapes now, two-finger tilting and rotating, gyroscope support, and caching for offline view of your most-visited areas. You can check out the tablet and Maps in the video above.

Honeycomb won't just be for tablets: Rubin said it'll be coming to phones, too. He didn't much else to say on the build -- after all, Gingerbread isn't even out yet -- but we should expect to see it "sometime next year."

Chrome OS and Cr-48

So, that was all Monday. The next day, Google held a Chrome press event to talk about -- what else -- its browser and browser-based OS of choice (check out our liveblog for the play-by-play). Showcasing integrated Instant Search for the next Chrome was a no-brainer but still very impressive to see, but the first big reveal was the final Chrome Web Store (which launched later that day). Google sees the store as a portal for great web content, with purchases tied to your Google account. And the web apps we saw were pretty good (if not very similar to their iPad counterparts) and will run in any browser that supports the "standard web technologies." There's some gaming, but from what we've seen so far ("you pop it!"), it's nothing you're gonna be focusing a lot of time on.

Then came the Chrome OS laptops. It just takes four steps and less than a minute to set up a brand-new Chrome OS machine -- it pulls all your Chrome themes and settings from the cloud, so it's ready to go almost right away, and changes can propagate in less than a second in some cases. The reference machine demoed was able to come back up from sleep almost instantly -- Google says the limiting factor is actually how fast the user can move their hand. (It wasn't that fast in the demo, but it was still really fast.) The OS also supports multiple accounts with a guest account that runs in Incognito mode, and all user data is encrypted by default. The OS itself is loaded on read-only memory that can't be altered without physical access -- a tech which enables verified booting. (A "jailbreak mode" switch on the developer units lets you install whatever you want, but we'll see what the final machines support.) What's more, the OS will be automatically updated every few weeks -- the goal is for it to get faster over time, not slower.

There's also offline capability -- Google Docs was demoed running offline, with changes synced when the machine reconnects. It seems like that's an app-specific feature though -- apps on the Chrome Web Store have to be built for HTML5 offline to work, obviously. Google also demoed Google Cloud Print, which allows you to print on your home printer from anywhere. Chrome OS devices will also be able to use new Verizon 3G plans for offline access -- you'll get 100MB of free data per month for two years, and then plans start at $9.99 for a day of "unlimited access" with no contracts required. (There will eventually be international options, but those weren't detailed.)

There are still some unfinished bits though -- there's no support for the USB ports on the machines yet, and there are still some performance tweaks and bug fixes to come. (Don't expect ever being able to connect a printer, as the company thinks its Cloud Print service is a better option.) The OS will come on Intel-based machines from Acer and Samsung in mid-2011 -- and "thousands of Googlers" are using Chrome OS devices as their primary machines. An unbranded 12-inch reference machine called Cr-48 will be available for developers -- read more about that here.

Overall, Chrome OS is very much a modern riff on the "thin client" idea from the 90s -- an idea that Eric Schmidt himself pioneered while at Sun. Indeed, Schmidt took the stage at the event to explicitly draw the connection, saying that "our instincts were right 20 years ago, but we didn't have the tools or technology." That's a pretty wild statement -- and now Google has to deliver.

Nilay Patel and Paul Miller contributed to this report