What can Chromebooks offer the enterprise desktop market?

If you’re an IT professional managing a large desktop estate or an end user with a Windows 10 PC, you’ll be aware that Windows is undergoing a tortuous transformation, with only enthusiasts and devotees immune to the pain imparted by a thousand tiny cuts. So, is Microsoft caught between a rock and hard place with no viable alternative PC operating system to offer its customers or is there another path for a company that advocates a growth mindset?

Mutton dressed as lamb

The modern PC, no matter how well it’s packaged, is still a workstation in disguise. It runs a complex operating system designed for a different era; one that many have now forgotten and many more have never experienced. And what’s more, this PC model is rooted and jailbroken.

If I were to characterise Windows 10 today, I might describe it as ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. Now, if you’ve developed a taste for Windows over the years, you’ll adapt to the fresh new look of the OS and be all the better for it. But we should recognise that many new entrants to the workforce are raised on the web and suckled on Android and iOS devices. How are they going to adapt to the world of Windows?

Mobile operating systems have partially filled the modern computing gap, but most people, even young Millennials, still recognise the occasional need for a traditional large screen device with keyboard and mouse support. Android and iOS are scaling-up to address this use case, but as they do so, we’re seeing complexity creep in with every update. This gives me that déjà vu feeling and I fear that history is going to repeat itself unless we consider a different operating system approach.

Unleashing the Chromebook hidden inside your PC

Google recently hammered-home the pain points associated with today’s PCs (and Macs) in an ad that openly mocks today’s incumbent desktop operating systems. The back-to-school market is the focus of the ad, which is already responsive to Chromebooks and Chrome OS, but I’m sure it prompted a few IT pros to consider the question ‘Is there any business value in Chromebooks and this style of operating system for my organisation?’

Before we go any further, it’s important to recognise that some jobs and activities are well matched to the capabilities of a modern Windows PC or Mac. Indeed, some roles are almost defined by the applications that run on these platforms. For these use cases, and there are plenty of them, the traditional desktop or laptop computer offers an excellent fit, but we don’t have to look too hard to find occupations that sit comfortably within the sweet-spot of the modern browser-based computer.

So, if I offered you a magic wand to convert some of your legacy PC/Mac purchases into something more akin to a Chromebook, would you want to give it a wave? Well, you can do just that if you’ve got a USB memory stick and a few minutes to spare. CloudReady is an operating system from Google-invested Neverware. It’s based on Google’s open source Chromium OS and shares the same architecture as Google Chrome OS. Booting from the USB drive, I was able to transform a 2006 Dell Inspiron laptop into a very usable computer and, without touching the factory-installed Windows 10 OS, my Lenovo X1 Carbon enjoyed being a sporty Chromebook for a long weekend.

The browser is the most important program on your PC

No one doubts the convenience of being able to access the web with a device that you can carry around in your pocket, but many roles and activities need a large screen experience, usually supported by a keyboard and mouse, to make best use of enterprise web applications and tools.

Alas, for some employees, using a fully managed corporate PC isn’t always the most rewarding of activities, even when it’s just the web browser being used. And our experience tells us that this only gets worse over time due to changes in stuff that has nothing to do with accessing those web-based apps and resources. Chromebooks, on the other hand, are optimised for efficient use of the web and cloud services.

There’s plenty of choice on the market if you’re looking for a new Chromebook, Chromebox or Chromebase, but if you want to explore the business value of these devices, CloudReady Enterprise Edition is well worth evaluating, especially if you’re looking at large PC refresh program (Windows 7 support will end January 14, 2020) or have specialised needs, such as ruggedized PCs or equipment certified for use in hazardous areas.

Who’s got the mindset to back a browser-based OS?

Official figures for Chromebook shipments are hard to find, but StatCounter has Chrome OS at 0.5% of desktop operating system market share worldwide. This means there’s plenty of opportunity for vendors other than Google to make their mark on the browser-based OS market.

All the tech industry’s Titans have the resources, capability and opportunity to create their own operating system based on the Chromium OS project, and it’s not that hard to imagine the likes of Amazon, VMware, IBM, Huawei, etc. taking the plunge, each underpinning its efforts with cloud offerings and complementary services. And it would be an interesting ‘thought experiment’ for Apple. There’s plenty of untapped business value and market potential in the desktop model, and Google’s already out there trying to grab it from under the noses of Microsoft and Apple, especially in the education sector.

Windows 10 in S mode is the only alternative to Windows 10 that Microsoft has to offer right now, and that’s not enough. Microsoft Office 365 already sits comfortably within the browser environment, especially when using the Microsoft Office Online extension, so what’s it got to lose? If we look at Chrome OS, then swapping out Google Drive in favour of OneDrive would seem to be a trivial task. Linux, the foundation on which Chrome OS is built, is no longer anathema to Microsoft, so no problem there either. And of course, the company already makes Edge for iOS and Android devices. It’s beginning to feel like a no-brainer.

The future of managed desktop services

There are many ways to deliver the modern digital workspace, and Chromebooks present enterprises with yet another option. But Microsoft isn’t going to give the desktop away without a fight, and if the rumours are to be believed, we might even see the company moving into the managed desktop services market. Working with its partners, Microsoft might be onto a winner here if it can offer enterprises the right combination of devices, services and support for legacy Windows applications. Windows 10 and Windows 10 in S mode will be part of the mix for sure, but a complementary, browser-based OS would seem to make a sensible addition to the operating system line-up too. What do you think?

Read more from Freeform Dynamics’ end-user computing team here.

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