Why the browser is the computer

When he was CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy once said that the network is the computer. Today, users spend most of their time in a browser

There is a sense in the industry that 2018 will be marked by a change in attitude to desktop IT.

In the early 1990s, the leading word processing package was WordPerfect, and MS-DOS ran on most PCs. The user interface was text-based.

When Microsoft introduced Windows 3.1, arguably the first usable version of its eponymous graphical user interface (GUI), there was a seismic shift in the industry to develop Windows applications.

Over time, this led to the demise of Microsoft’s traditional rivals, Novell and WordPerfect.

As Windows evolved in the early 2000s from Windows 2000/Windows Me to XP, Windows 7 and now Windows 10, Microsoft has become the fundamental desktop software underpinning many popular business applications.

But the emergence of compelling business applications now delivered as software as a service (SaaS) and the growth of browser applications presents an opportunity for the IT industry to look at whether it is now time to drop the Windows GUI for a more lightweight internet browser interface.

This is where Google’s Linux-based Chrome OS fits in. The operating system, which has been engineered to run the Chrome browser on Chromebook devices, is starting to gain some traction in the enterprise. Enterprise-class Chromebooks are now shipping at a similar price to Windows laptops, shifting the perception that Chrome OS is a cheap alternative to Windows. On the software side, work is being done to make Chrome OS run on older PC hardware.

Neverware, the developer of CloudReady, is one such company. Neverware has set its focus on helping businesses breathe new life into ageing PCs, and its plans appear to be aligned with the evolution of Chrome OS, which is beginning to break out of its niche in education, thanks in part to Windows.

The widely used Windows 7 operating system will come to the end of its support lifecycle in January 2020, giving businesses less than two years to migrate.

Industry experts regard the Windows 7 end of life deadline as an opportunity to re-evaluate desktop computing. From an IT management perspective, Windows 10 should not simply be regarded as the next iteration of the Windows operating system. The OS’s patching, updating and security are managed directly by Microsoft, rather than an internal IT administrator.

Computacenter describes this as “evergreen computing”, and it believes Microsoft will manage Windows, changing the role of desktop IT support.

Alternative desktop strategy

This is an opportunity for CIOs to reassess how to run desktop IT, which is why the industry is beginning to see interest in an alternative desktop strategy.

Given that there will be a subset of users who run predominantly browser-based and SaaS applications on their Windows machines, the question is, will Windows still the best option for desktop IT?

Speaking to Computer Weekly sister title MicroScope, Paul Nicholas, business manager, Google, at Tech Data, says: “One of the significant challenges for IT in the enterprise is shrinking budgets with increased expectations on operational efficiencies. The cost of legacy applications can use a large portion of an IT manager’s budget. Adopting Chrome devices with an enterprise management licence can reduce IT expenses by as much at 75% over three years.”

But it is not necessary to buy a physical Chromebook to run and pilot Chrome OS. That is where Neverware fits in.

Neverware’s product, CloudReady, is a desktop operating system for x86-based hardware, such as PCs and Macs, that can be secured and managed through Google Management Console.

In October 2017, Neverware launched its Series B funding round, with Google participating as an initial investor. Since Google’s investment, Neverware has seen interest from companies of all sizes and is trialling CloudReady with a number of organisations.

More recently, the company entered into an agreement to acquire Flint Innovations, the UK-based company behind Flint OS, another Chromium operating system. The deal is expected to close by the end of this month.

“Flint OS will allow us to accelerate our international growth,” says Neverware CEO Andrew Bauer. “The Flint OS team has tried to establish a branch of the Chromium operating system in the UK. Flint OS is a rare opportunity to bring people on board who understand the value of Chrome OS. By working together, we can accelerate the adoption. Together, we will be better positioned – in Europe and around the world – to expand awareness in schools and businesses of the benefits that accompany installing a secure, easily manageable operating system like CloudReady on existing computers.”

Commenting on the acquisition, Flint OS CEO and co-founder Will Smith, who will remain with the firm and assume the new role of Neverware’s head of European operations, working from London, says: “We created Flint with the vision that all applications and services we use today will be living in the cloud, and can be done through a single browser window. Neverware believes just as keenly in that vision, and I look forward to working with it to bring a lightweight, modern operating system to the European market.”

While Google and its partners start to push for Chromebooks running Chrome OS in the enterprise, Neverware regards CloudReady as a way for cash-strapped IT departments to inject new life into older hardware.

“Schools do not have to procure new hardware,” says Bauer. “We are building an operating system that, in the long run, organisations of all sizes will want to adopt, and we won’t want to compromise user experience.”

Supporting Microsoft Office

Chrome OS and CloudReady are optimised for Google’s office productivity suite, G-Suite. G-Suite applications are synchronised automatically onto Google Drive, enabling the user to work offline. But Microsoft Office is widely used and support for the Office file format is key.

“Familiarity with Office programs is often a key challenge in user adoption,” says Paul Nicholas, business manager, Google, at Tech Data. “The Google Drive team has understood how important Office support is to customers, so it recently launched Google Docs-style collaborative commenting for all file types in Drive. There is now no need to convert Word/PPT/Excel into Docs/Sheets/Slides for G-Suite.”

With a Microsoft account, it is also possible to use Outlook Web Access, and a Microsoft Office 365 subscription offers browser versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint through Microsoft Office Online. Documents can be created, opened and saved to OneDrive and there is also integration with third-party cloud storage, such as Box and Dropbox. All of this is possible directly from the Chrome OS browser user interface.

Unlike other Linux operating systems, which are designed so they can boot up from a live USB stick, CloudReady is mainly intended to replace an existing desktop operating system. As such, it overwrites the installed operating system.

This may deter some people from trying it out before installing, but Bauer says: “We believe the primary use case is to install CloudReady on the hard drive.”

As the company begins to flesh out its strategy for the enterprise, Bauer does not regard this as a barrier. “We have tested dual booting CloudReady with Windows, but we are moving away from that,” he says. “We want to provide CloudReady as the best possible desktop OS.”

Bauer says the investment with Google has the potential to enable Neverware to integrate CloudReady more closely with Google’s Chrome OS. “We have closer communications with its engineering team and our goal is to make sure we are as close to Chrome OS as possible,” he adds.

The company maintains a list of 200 CloudReady certified laptops, desktops and Mac PCs – spanning nine- to 10-year-old hardware. Thin client devices based on Intel chipsets are also supported by CloudReady. Bauer says older hardware can be updated using CloudReady to provide a virtual desktop environment.

This is made possible through the Google Management Console, which enables the older hardware running CloudReady to boot directly into kiosk mode, which means it can be configured to run only one application, such as to provide the user with a remote desktop through virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

Supporting legacy Windows

Paul Bray, chief technologist for digital workplace technologies at Computacenter, says the remote desktop used to be the poster child for Chromebooks, enabling users to access their Windows desktops remotely.

Arguably, providing remote access to Windows applications could become one of the use cases for CloudReady, particularly if businesses are looking at using the end of life of Windows 7 to kick-start a new approach to desktop IT. But there will always be some applications that are not available as SaaS or are not browser-based, and hence can only run on a Windows desktop. For these applications, VDI may be the only way forward, unless the application is replaced with something entirely different.

Both Citrix and VMware offer Chrome browser extensions to provide a Windows desktop through VDI on Chrome OS. In a recent blog describing how this works, Citrix senior product marketing manager (alliances) DNA Sean Donahue wrote: “When coupled with the Citrix Receiver for Chrome, available from the Chrome web store or at Citrix.com, employees have the flexibility to use their Chromebooks to access line-of-business applications and virtual desktops with a native look and feel, anywhere they want, on any network and from any device.”

The way Chrome OS – and, for that matter, CloudReady – has been engineered means the operating system maintains a clean copy every time it boots up, which, according to the experts Computer Weekly spoke to, makes it free from malware. In theory, because all data and corporate applications are secured in the datacentre, the virtual desktop is also secure.

VMware Horizon is also available as a Chrome extension to provide virtual desktop access. But a browser-based VDI experience does have limitations, some of which can be overcome using tools from Google, such as its Management Console. Google Cloud Print can be used to provide local printing via the cloud, and Google Drive can be used for simple file sharing.

Windows application consolidation

An audit of desktop applications in most large enterprises would probably reveal hundreds of Windows applications, and there will almost certainly be multiple versions of these on the network.

As Windows 7 goes end of life, IT managers should be looking to reduce this number by tightening up software asset management audits.

Knowing the extent of their Windows desktop estate will enable CIOs and IT decision-makers to assess the viability of running more browser applications, and possibly a browser-optimised operating system such as Chrome OS or CloudReady.

This was last published in March 2018

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