Don't laugh, Chromebooks will likely seduce a lot of businesses

Don't underestimate Google's Chromebook for Business program. It will entice a lot of organizations to consider ditching Windows for Chrome OS. See how it could save big money and win over CIOs.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

Most of the IT professionals I know scoff or snicker when I bring up the topic of Google Chrome OS. But, just as IT pros used to roundly dismiss the idea of cloud computing -- and many of them are now climbing over each other to tout their cloud and virtualization expertise -- it might not be long before IT also warms up to Chrome OS, out of necessity.

On Wednesday at Google I/O 2011, Google unveiled Chromebooks and the Chromebooks for Businessprogram. Google made a hard sell for its cloud-based PC platform and for the new business program that will allow businesses to rent Chromebooks for a low monthly cost per user.

Google claims that by deploying Chromebooks instead of traditional PCs, companies can reduce the total cost of ownership for business computers by 70%. That's a whopping number and we're still trying to figure out where Google came up with that amount, but most of it is based on eliminating PC management tasks -- security, software patches, anti-malware, and OS and software deployment.

Here's a video that sums up the pitch Google is making to businesses:

If you're already familiar with the Chrome OS and Google's CR-48 pilot program then you know that it is essentially a bootable Web browser that handles all of its apps and storage in the cloud. In IT-speak, it's a laptop thin client.

On Wednesday, Google also said that it's also going to make a "Chromebox" desktop for non-mobile users who want to hook up their own keyboard, mouse, and monitor. It even showed off a prototype that appeared to be made by Samsung and looked like a cross between an HP thin client box and a Mac Mini.

However, the first two Chrome OS products will be Chromebook laptops from Samsung and Acer and they will be released in the US (as well as the UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) on June 15. The Acer will cost $349 and the Samsung will be $429. These are both ultra-thin, light laptops in the mode of the MacBook Air -- but for less than half the cost.

Here's a quick peek at the hardware:

While Chromebooks will give consumers the opportunity to buy a slick laptop at a netbook price, Google is offering a different kind of deal to small companies, non-profit organizations, and the corporate world. It will rent these laptops in bulk to businesses for $28/month per user ($20/month per user for schools and educational institutions). That price will include tech support, rapid hardware replacement, automatic background updates, a Web-based management console for IT professionals (for managing users, apps, and policies), and a hardware refresh every three years.

Here are the slides from Google I/O where the company made the pitch for what Chromebooks have to offer and how the Chromebooks for Business program will work:

At I/O 2011, Google also announced some important updates to Chrome OS -- including some stuff that will be absolutely necessary in order to make this functional for average users. First and foremost, Google announced a file manager and some limited local storage options (mostly for caching cloud-based files). This will enable users to connect cameras and storage devices and import their files to cloud-based services like photo sharing sites, online office suites, and document repositories. In some cases, the Web apps may need to do a little work to turn their services into Chrome OS apps that can access the hardware via Chrome APIs.

However, the biggest benefit of the new storage updates in Chrome OS is that it helps enable offline apps. In 5-10 years we're likely to have cheap, ubiquitous Internet access, but the today's reality is that whenever people are away from home or the office, connections are often spotty and inconsistent. That makes offline access to critical apps essential, and it's one of the biggest things that professionals worry about when it comes to a cloud-based OS.

"We've worked hard to make many, many applications available offline," said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome. He said Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs will be ready for offline availability this summer.

From a business perspective, the one big feature that's still missing is built-in VPN support. Many VPN solutions have Web-based logins -- and I successfully tested CBS Interactive's SSL VPN client on Google's CR-48 Chrome notebook -- but a standard VPN option will need to integrated to simplify the user experience. Google has promised that VPN will be added, and the feature has already started showing up in the Chrome OS dev channel.

A number of companies have already publicly admitted that their IT departments are running major trials of Chromebooks, including the City of Orlando, Logitech, Jason's Deli, American Airlines, Ruby Tuesday, National Geographic, and others.

In an official statement, Jason's Deli said, "The Google Chrome notebooks are almost effortless to manage. Staging, imaging, updating, and repairing software problems are almost non-existent issues at this point. Replacement is as simple as handing out a new device with no IT involvement necessary."

Based on the early returns, Google said companies can switch 75% of their users to Chromebooks.

"We think this can fundamentally change the way people manage computers in business," said Pichai.

Google co-founder Sergei Brin added, "The complexity of managing your computers is torturing users out there. All of us. That's a flawed model fundamentally. Chromebooks are a new model."

Bottom line

A lot of IT professionals will still laugh at the idea of Google's Chrome OS, since most of them would never want to use such a limited system and can name plenty of business users who could never be converted to a cloud machine -- graphics designers, accountants, architects, etc. However, all of those could safely fit into the 25% of users who Google says aren't candidates for Chromebooks (versus the 75% who are).

Chromebooks may still be a little bit ahead of themselves until offline access and VPN support are ready in the coming months, but I think the lure of Chromebooks will prove to be very attractive to a lot of businesses and organizations starting in the second half of this year.

Two years ago when Google first announced Chrome OS, I wrote 3 reasons it matters, and 4 reasons it's irrelevant. However, that was before IT embraced cloud computing and virtualization on such a broad scale, which has drastically reduced the need for powerful desktop computers for many corporate users (and the trend is expected to accelerate in the years ahead). That, coupled with the fact that most internal applications are now delivered via a Web browser, means that the best thing Google may have going for it with Chromebooks is timing.

The time is right for a thin client solution to replace the overcomplicated mess that is corporate PC deployment and management. Google is right about that, and there's a growing legion of CIOs -- still of a vocal minority of about 30% -- that are clamoring to reduce IT spending by moving to thin clients or desktop virtualization. Google's solution could give many of them exactly what they need.

Over a three-year rental period, a business would pay $1008 for a Chromebook plus another $150 for Google Apps. That's roughly about the same cost most businesses would pay Microsoft for a seat of Windows, Microsoft Office, and a CAL for Microsoft servers (as part of an Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft). However, with the Google deal, the company also gets desktop hardware and it can eliminate or at least greatly reduce most of expensive server hardware and backend Microsoft software. For many businesses, that kind of equation would be very lucrative, and way too tempting to ignore.

Read more

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

Editorial standards