Can the Chromebook change enterprise desktop IT?

Can Google's Chromebook shift traditional IT spending to thin client computing? Cliff Saran reports.

With Google Chromebooks starting at around £350, the thin client, cloud-based computing device which runs Google's Chrome OS is no cheaper than a Windows 7 netbook. But unlike a netbook, the Chromebook relies on internet connectivity to access applications and store data.

Google claims businesses will buy Chromebooks because they offer significantly lower total cost of ownership figures, even when compared with a managed desktop environment.

The company also hinted that the products will be offered through a subscription package: "You will get warranty, service and a new computer with the Chromebook."

"On average, enterprises spend $3,000 per year on their PC environment for a well-managed PC desktop. We believe Chrome OS will be significantly cheaper," Google said.

The savings will come from the fact that Chromebooks reduce the need for administration software, maintenance and helpdesk costs, Google claimed. "You won't need anti-virus and firewalls," it said.

For $28 per user per month, Google is offering cloud-based management for its Chromebook, which it says enables an entire fleet of Chromebooks to be managed from a single web-based console.


Web-based model a strength or weakness?



At the Forrester IT Forum last week, George Colony, CEO of the analyst firm, slated the Chromebook because it relies on networking and does not take advantage of local processing power. In a cynical blog post, he wrote: "Without the web, Google's business model fails. Every time we search, Google gets a chance to make money based on advertising. That's why the company wants us to ditch our powerful laptops and trade them in for web-centric workstations that won't work unless they are linked to Google's servers."

Colony's views are at odds with the enterprise IT perspective, where the Chromebook is squarely aimed. Certainly, conceptually, the Chromebook moves IT further from traditional desktop computing, but there are many alternatives.

"Corporates certainly aren't sitting Canut-like against this endless tide of computing devices and cost-saving opportunities. However, maturity in large-scale IT management and application means the Chromebook will be evaluated critically and thoroughly - and in good time, despite promises of faster, easier and much cheaper," said Ollie Ross, research manager at The Corporate IT Forum.

"Its web-based strength for some will be a challenge for others. Its consumer device tag puts it in the same space as strong competitors, while its business-ready package is likely to carry the same concerns already challenging wholesale corporate uptake of cloud computing, which include OS, real-world support and data security," he added. "Revolution? Unlikely, but it is potentially another step away from the desktop strategies of yesterday."

Ray Titcombe, chairman of the IBM CUA, said: "I have followed Google's entry with this device for a while. My view is that for the cloud-committed and other mobile/browser-based environment organisations, it has potential - although the claims of web browsing optimisation are a little 'untested' across the various modes of use."

He points out that many companies have already developed web notebooks and stripped the operating systems down to make power-on a quick option, but says this launch does promise to make it "easy".

"I think the Chromebook has a lot of potential as a notebook PC alternative. The 12in screen is a great bridge between iPads and netbooks and traditional notebooks."


Can the Chromebook deliver on Google's promises?



So will the product live up to the hype?

"I know cloud services will reduces costs, but it is too early to say how and by how much," said one local government CIO and member of Socitm (Society of IT management).

Andrew McGrath, executive director, commercial, of Virgin Media Business, believes the new device should help drive uptake of both cloud services and mobile working. "We are all starting to use the cloud more in our day-to-day lives, whether it is a web e-mail service, music streaming site or a cloud-based CRM application. The launch of Chromebook by Google should help to further drive cloud adoption among businesses that had previously been unsure about switching to a virtual platform," he said.

But he warns that before embracing the cloud, businesses must ensure that they have the connectivity in place to support an increasingly dispersed, mobile workforce. "The right connectivity will become ever more important as these workers increasingly start to access mission-critical applications from the cloud," McGrath said.

IT monitoring software provider Opsview has warned that Chromebooks and similar devices are going to bring a new set of IT monitoring challenges. James Peel, product manager at Opsview, said: "[The Chromebook] will require a step-change in how organisations monitor and manage their IT in the future. There will be less physical infrastructure to monitor, but at the same time any cloud-based services used by the organisation need to be monitored to ensure that SLAs are being met and business performance is not hindered. Businesses cannot just rely on their service providers, they need to ensure they have ways to check they are getting the service levels they require."

For CIOs, the Chromebook is not regarded as a revolution. Thin clients have been around since Sun's former top man, Scott McNeally, proclaimed that the network is the computer, when he launched his PC alternative, the Javastation, in the late 1990s. But this is the era of cloud computing, and Google certainly has the reach and deep enough pockets to fund a revolution in desktop IT, in the same way that Microsoft did with the personal computer in the 1990s when Windows took off.



Chromebooks in a competitive market


Like the iPad and other media tablets, Chromebooks appear to be a device play to the space between a smartphone and a PC - designed to appeal to users looking for a lightweight, highly mobile device with immediate-on access to the web, predominantly for the for the sake of content consumption, but with some light content creation in mind too, writes Gartner research director George Shiffler.

Like media tablets, they will almost certainly appeal to the class of PC customers who have always been looking for such a device but, until now, had to settle for a PC. The critical question is how big is that class of PC users? Is it bigger than a breadbox? Probably. Is it the majority of PC users? Probably not.

The fact that fast and reliable web access seems to be key to their function and appeal suggests that Chromebooks will largely be a mature market phenomena. That will limit their impact on PCs, considering we expect emerging markets to drive the bulk of traditional PC growth going forward.

The first Chromebooks have certainly been priced competitively, at least in the US, to the point that they could give low-end Windows notebooks and media tablets a real run for their money, depending on how users value their functionality relative to those devices. Indeed, it is how users view and value the functionality of Chromebooks relative to other devices that will dictate how successful they are in the client device market.




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