I have to admit, I've gotten caught up in the buzz around Google Chromebooks not once, but twice. Every so often, I get the bug to try one out to see if I can exist in a 100% Web space, but I've always concluded that the device isn't appropriate as my "daily driver."
Still, it's hard to ignore the endorsements that others give Google Chromebooks. On the surface, they appear to be the perfect unmanaged device. There are no viruses, they update themselves, and with the ability to access remote Windows desktops and applications via HTML 5, they can even be thin clients. School systems are probably the loudest supporters that have anything close to an enterprise use, especially because the devices are so cheap, but what about more traditional enterprises?
Too much has to happen for enterprise-wide adoption.
Most conversation around this topic centers on management, price and performance, and applications. Let's go through each area to look at the value of Google Chromebooks in enterprises.
Though the benefits of Chromebooks are compelling, the lack of any enterprise management features is likely a turn off for enterprises. For schools, that omission is perhaps less important, which would explain the viability of the use case. But enterprises typically want to manage something, even if it's just access to the device itself or settings. Sure, if you're using it as an unmanaged device, it makes sense, but that's not most companies today.
As operating systems go, Chrome OS is a toddler. There just isn't that much to configure, so the need is not as great as it would be if the OS was more mature. I doubt we'll ever see it have enterprise-class management features, but that's more because this is a new OS for a new era, not Windows. Any Chrome OS management that comes out in the future will almost certainly resemble mobile device management. Still, that should scratch the itch that IT has to manage something.
Price and performance
This is the most divisive of categories, mainly because there is a large group of people that has a legitimate use for Google Chromebooks. Consumers are lured in by the low cost (typically under $300) of the devices, so they're cheaper than an iPad and they have a keyboard.
The problem I've had with the around-$300 devices is that performance when doing typical tasks can be sub-par. High-definition videos -- or even full-screen ones that aren't HD -- are glitchy. Pages load slower than they do on more full-featured laptops, too, especially applications like Google Drive. It is useable, but not great. Basically, it's what you'd expect for a $300 device.
The answer to this, at least today, is the Chromebook Pixel from Google. This device is incredibly powerful (and heavy). It boasts a retina-like touchscreen and an Intel i5 processor. Compared to the $300 device, the experience is night and day, but that comes with a $1,200 price tag -- the cost of a MacBook Air. Admittedly, the Pixel is made in small numbers to show vendors that Google can make high-end devices, so it's conceivable that they could be much cheaper when made in larger runs with competition.
Let's not forget, too, that the only form factor available today that uses the Chrome OS is the Chromebook. There has been talk about the Chromebox for desktop form factors, but I've yet to see one in person or even for sale. For typical task workers and thin-client needs, there needs to be a viable desktop offering that performs very well at a low price.
How much cheaper do they have to be, though? What price point are people willing to pay for what amounts to a browser on a laptop? Even if a Pixel-like device was $800 or $500, would enterprises be willing to buy into it? Are enterprises ready to buy into the platform?
Ultimately, getting the price down is up to Moore's Law, but getting enterprises to adopt the platform comes down to the applications. Like it or not, applications are still primarily Windows. That number is decreasing as time goes by, but we still need to deliver Windows applications well into the future. Thankfully, there are many HTML 5 remote desktop clients out there to handle the task. Ericom's AccessNow, VMware Blast and Citrix's HTML 5 Receiver all work well with Chrome. Even tools like Oracle Secure Global Desktop are on the HTML 5 bandwagon.
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In the past, clients lacked some refinements that the more traditional client software packages offered. That's still true, but things like audio have been solved. Plus, some of the products actually encode the video output of the device directly to HTML 5 rather than translating a "normal" remoting protocol into something the browser can recognize. That means that even though the experience of an HTML 5 client isn't as good as a full client, it is acceptable in many cases.
Still, if most of your apps are Windows, why shoehorn them into this device? For a browser-only device to make sense, your company's apps would have to be almost entirely Web-based. That's a large hill to climb to begin using Chrome OS, and the upside of the devices doesn't come close to outweighing the amount of work that goes into shifting your entire application development and delivery philosophy.
What's the verdict on Google Chromebooks?
While they are good for consumers in a broad way, and schools in a more specific way, enterprises are far away from having a viable use for Chromebooks or Chromeboxes. There are undoubtedly niche situations in companies where they might make sense, but too much has to happen for enterprise-wide adoption.
Applications have to change, devices have to perform better, and costs have to come down. That means a lot of work from vendors and companies, but the biggest thing that will drive adoption is probably time.
This was first published in December 2013