Google's Chromebook hadn't been on my radar, I confess. The first models from Samsung and Acer were so meh. And Google seemed content to quietly market them exclusively to K-12 schools.
But the ARM-based Samsung Chromebook has my full attention. Hello, my $249 gorgeous...
That caused me to belatedly examine all of the progress the Chromebook has made in the past year. Not only did I come away impressed, but Google's mobile platform moves suddenly made sense to me. Its hardware partners may disagree, but Google doesn't really care if Android makes it in the enterprise. It's a consumer platform. The cloud-centric Chrome is its enterprise play.
The first Chromebook was released at $349 more than a year ago. The price was good, but not great. But Samsung's sleek new $249 Chromebook aggressively undercuts the $499 iPad on price the way many observers thought Microsoft needed to do with the Surface RT.
Instead, it's the new Chromebook that is:
- half the price of the iPad and the Surface RT;
- half to one-third the price of Windows 8 convertible tablets (see my gallery of 17 of them here). Without keyboards, most of these Atom-based 'tabtops' or 'laptablets' run between $500 and $900;
- one-third to one-fourth the price of Windows 8 ultrabooks, which run between $800 to $1,200.
At these prices, what CIO or IT manager wouldn't give the Chromebook a serious look?
You'd have to be crazy not to.
The new Chromebook is also a dramatic improvement in looks - important in the age of the Consumerization of IT. Whereas the first Chromebooks were drab, stripped-down laptops, the latest Samsung model sports MacBook Air-like looks and dimensions (0.8 inches thin, 2.4 pounds). It bears little resemblance to its forebears or their common ancestor, the undersized-yet-chunky netbook. As Computerworld put it, "Make no mistake about it: This is an attractive computer."
The new Chromebook is also more powerful under the hood, being the first mobile device to sport Samsung's Exynos 5 system-on-chip. The Exynos 5 uses a dual-core, 1.7 GHz ARM Cortex-A15 CPU that can support up to 2560x1600 resolution, 1080p video at 60 frames per second, and USB 3.0.
The Cortex-A15 has been benchmarked running twice as fast as the quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3, which, coincidentally, is used in the Surface and the Google Nexus tablet. The Cortex-A15 is so fast that the iPhone 5, probably the fastest mobile device today, was initially thought to be running it.
Alas, there's theory and there's IRL (In Real Life). The new Chromebook seems to be shackled by its 2 GB of RAM, with reviewers saying that the browser becomes sluggish after you open a dozen browser tabs or so. That's annoying, but with an 11.6-inch, 1366-x768 screen, the Chromebook wasn't going to please Browser Hoarders, anyway.
(For faster performance, you can opt for the $449 Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550, which has a dual-core Intel Celeron chip and 4 GB of RAM.)
Google has also improved the Chromebook's offline capabilities so that you can read and write e-mail and Google Docs while disconnected from the cloud. Besides the 16 GB of local storage on the SSD, you also now get 100 GB of Google storage, too.
Mobile Device Management with the Chromebook
You can argue that enterprises aren't as easily impressed by price tags as consumers. What they care about is Total Cost Of Ownership (TCO), which is related mostly to the cost and time of managing devices.
Here, Google also claims its Chromebook shines, with a TCO that is just a fraction of a PC (try their calculator). Organizations can ship a Chromebook straight to an end user and auto-enroll and provision their network settings, apps and other policies the first time they log into the Web. This "zero-touch deployment" should be music to the ears of IT admins.
IT managers can later update the OS, track assets, push updates and block apps, apply group policies etc. all via Google's Web-based management console. Security is a no-brainer, says Google, since it installs security patches to the Chrome browser quickly and behind the scenes.
If you prefer to outsource management and support, Google will do it and charge you a flat fee of $150 per Chromebook for the lifetime of the device. For schools, it's just $30 per Chromebook.
- Richland School District 2 (SC) - 19,000 Chromebooks
- Council Bluffs Community School District (IA) - 4,300 Chromebooks
- Leyden Community High School District (IL) - 3,500 Chromebooks
There is also Hanover School District (PA), University of Connecticut and Kingston University in London, and the schools shown on this map.
I must've really been asleep at the switch, as the Chromebook also has won some mainstream enterprise users. They include Mollen Clinics (4,500 Chromebooks), California State Library (1,000 Chromebooks), the Dillard's Inc. retail chain, test prep provider, Kaplan, Logitech, the city of Orlando, the U.S. Army. See this map for testimonials and MSPMentor for excellent coverage.
What if you're a company that doesn't want your investment in Windows applications to go to waste? Well, there are third-party tools like Citrix Receiver and Ericom AccessNow that let you remotely access Windows applications running on desktop PCs or servers. Trucking firm, Quality Distribution Inc. (QDI), and the aforementioned Richland and Hanover school districts, Kingston University and the University of Connecticut all use Ericom's Accessnow. If don't want the hassle of managing that data center, there are also cloud services like nGenx that can host those Windows desktops or applications.
Chromebooks can also be great for organizations with slim capital budgets. You can rent Chromebooks from CIT Group for $30 a month with no long-term commitment.
Who Should Get The Chromebook?
Chromebooks won't be right for every organization. For enterprises that are standardized on Windows and an Active Directory-based management infrastructure, Google's MDM solution will feel like an extra fee to pay and an extra dashboard to manage. That's what Microsoft and Windows 8 proponents are betting upon.
Also, I would argue that Google's TCO figures are overly-optimistic, as they assume companies will standardize on the Chromebook for mobile. That's unrealistic, if you want to be at all responsive to the needs of your employees, partners and customers. In many companies, Chrome would be a 3rd or even 4th mobile platform. Those enterprises will need to invest in cross-platform MDM AND Mobile Enterprise App Platforms.
With that in mind, I think Google would be smart to start working on integrating its Chromebook management console with mainstream MDM or PC management software. Or, at the very least, opening up the APIs so that other software can do the heavy lifting.
Also, even with its slightness and 3G option, the Chromebook is fundamentally more of a laptop replacement option for white-collar employees and other workers who rarely stray away from their corporate campus and its Wi-Fi network.
The Chromebook is NOT a true mobile device for field service and any jobs involving extended time away from a desk. Here, I include repairmen, store employees and doctors, and many many more. For them, touch-enabled tablets or convertibles make more ergonomic sense, IMHO.
But I could be wrong. Do you think enterprises should adopt Chromebooks? Why or why not?