At Google’s I/O conference this week, the audience erupted into cheers when they heard the news that they were getting a free notebook powered by the Chrome OS. It’s too bad that the audience was filled with developers instead of the IT pros who Google is counting on to actually buy these things. Something tells me that the latter audience would have been sitting on their hands for most of the session, and they wouldn't have been swayed by that Oprah moment.
My ZDNet colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is convinced that the Chromebook is going to finally usher in the era of desktop Linux. You can read his rosy perspective here: Five Reasons why Google's Linux Chromebook is a Windows killer.
As for me, this looks like the same old movie we’ve seen over and over. I’m certainly not ready to buy it yet, and here are my five reasons why:
1. The price is wrong. Every used-car salesman with a shiny suit and a bad toupee knows the first rule of selling a clunker: focus on the monthly payment and don’t talk about the total price. That’s exactly what the Googlers have done. That $28 a month price tag sounds OK until you realize it comes with a three-year commitment. The total for those 36 monthly payments is $1,008. For a glorified netbook?
That same grand will buy you one hellacious PC or even a MacBook, which you can configure according to your users’ needs instead of retraining your users to work with a whole new set of unfamiliar web-based apps.
2. Automatic updates are a nightmare. Google’s pitch for Chrome OS is that its automatic updates mean “continuous improvement.” Automatic updates are a new idea? Funny, I thought Windows (and OS X, for that matter) did that just fine. Indeed, Microsoft’s commitment to sustained engineering and regular updates is legendary, which is why Windows 7 today is more reliable and secure than it was when it was released a year and a half ago.
The trouble with pushing updates to every user automatically is that sometimes those updates break things. That’s already the case with Google’s browser, Chrome, whose frantic update cadence finally drove Technologizer’s Harry McCracken away:
[I]n recent days, some of the Web sites I use most—WordPress.com, Twitter, and Facebook—have stopped working properly in Chrome. I’m uncertain of why, but the most likely explanation is that they’re reacting badly to the newest version of Chrome, which, like all Chrome updates, was installed automatically on my computer. So I’m switching for the time being to Safari, where all those sites behave like they should.
That’s annoying but tolerable on a platform where you at least have the option to use an alternative browser. But do you really want to be the IT guy when your users begin calling you on Monday morning to tell you that your mission-critical, browser-based, line-of-business app isn’t working anymore? Just like it did last month when you had to pay your crack team of custom programmers triple overtime to fix things?
Old-fashioned IT people like to have control over update cycles because they want to test OS updates before they deploy them. Even if you save a few bucks by going Google, you’ll spend it all on Tums and Rolaids if you have to work at Google’s pace.
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3. Do all your apps run in a browser? Hope you love Google, because it’s the only first-class citizen in this ecosystem. Google brags that you can “keep using the same browser-based applications that you use today,” which begs the question of why you need to make a change. Meanwhile, apps that aren’t owned and operated by Google—like traditional CRM and accounting—need not apply.
Do your programmers have a development environment that runs in a browser? Can your creative employees do page layout and edit videos on an Atom-powered netbook using a browser-based app?
If your business depends on one of those stubbornly old-fashioned non-web apps, Google’s answer is a curious one:
Applications can range from the Google Apps productivity suite, including offline features, to custom-built tools running inside your firewall. For the few things that can’t be done through the web, desktop virtualization technology, like Citrix, can provide access to native-only apps.
Hold on there, pardner. The fixed costs of setting up that virtualization infrastructure are daunting. If you’re going to go to all that trouble, you might as well make the most of it. Estimates I’ve seen suggest that the average enterprise has a minimum of 15 and sometimes as many as 50 custom line-of-business applications. After making that serious an investment, you might even want to run the real Office on it.
4. Universal connectivity is a pipe dream. Do you really want to bet the productivity of your entire workforce on having reliable, fast Internet access everywhere? I’ve been in modern office buildings that might as well be made of lead when it comes to acquiring a cellular signal. And do you really want to have to beg your client or a sales prospect for access to their WiFi connection when you’re trying to close a million-dollar deal?
They do acknowledge this fact in the (literal) fine print at the bottom of the Chromebook Features page:
Obviously, you're going to need a wireless network, be willing to use it subject to the provider's terms and conditions, and be ready to put up with its real life limitations including, for example, its speed and availability. When you do not have network access, functionality that depends on it will not be available.
Google brags that “only minimal data is stored on the device.” That might not be such a good thing when the piece of data you really need right now is on a server you can’t reach.
5. There’s more to security than viruses. It’s ironic but understandable that Google would raise the specter of viruses at every turn. After all, this is the company whose dreadful PC management policies allowed them to get thoroughly compromised by Chinese hackers last year. But the threat landscape is varied and ever-changing, and Google hasn’t proven itself under fire.
Meanwhile, companies large and small have a wide range of security needs, some of them dictated by very specific laws. They also have ongoing relationships with security partners they know and trust. They use third-party disk encryption utilities like PGP and BitLocker. Google says their “verified boot” technology is just as good. Want to bet your company on it? And do you really want all your business data stored on Google's servers?
Earlier this week, when Google announced its new music service, it actually included the word Beta in the product’s name. Given where Chrome OS is today, it probably deserves that tag as well. Maybe in a year—or two, or three or five—Chrome OS will be ready for prime time. But not today.