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Browser OS could turn the browser into the new desktop

In this Q&A, VDC Research's Eric Klein explains why Chrome OS has jumped ahead of the market by providing a browser OS that addresses enterprise use cases.

Google's Chrome OS might be the most popular browser OS on the market. But Eric Klein, analyst at VDC Research, believes the race is on -- one that will ultimately make the browser the new desktop.

A browser OS enables a mobile workforce to access its organization's on-premises OS through a browser. The experience for the end user is similar to working on a PC in the office, but with the added benefit of being able to access their applications on any device from anywhere. Klein said browser OSes can also benefit IT admins, providing better security and better efficiency through automation.

For now, it's a Google browser OS world, but, as Klein explains in this Q&A, Microsoft and Apple don't appear to be far behind.

Give me a sense of the browser OS landscape.

Eric Klein: Chrome is the best example of this trend -- not to say Microsoft and Apple aren't moving in that direction.

We're at an interesting inflection point in the evolution of OSes in general. Google's way to gain Chrome adoption was with education, and it took off like wildfire. Those use cases have opened people's eyes to an intriguing model for approaching data leakage protection. This is about offering a secure and controlled way of provisioning application access and, paired with virtualization products from vendors like Citrix or VMware, you start to see interesting ways of approaching end-user computing.

Eric KleinEric Klein

The problem is, there are very few enterprise use cases for a browser OS. But a deployment of Chrome notebooks at the line of business, in the workers' hands, can lead to a major cost savings opportunity in terms of deployment. It's why we're seeing Google invest quite a bit in an enterprise-flavor of Chrome and elevating its messaging around an enterprise play. Google is really inserting itself into the types of partnerships that will gain traction in enterprise deployments.

I expect Microsoft, which has been unusually secretive, to join this space as well. We know they're doing something in this direction. And Apple too. The iPad OS was a [nod] in this direction a little bit. It's a new way of thinking about provisioning applications and security.

How is a browser OS more secure?

Klein: The term I use is native or embedded security. That's what it's about -- meaning hardware-level security elements associated with that device that allow strong authentication and encryption and provides an extra layer security. Apple, to its credit, has a robust native security for iOS, but the embedded hardware and native security are essential.

What are the drawbacks of a browser OS for IT admins?

Klein: A potential challenge is the browser becomes the desktop for the end user, and that's something folks have to get used to. But to Google's credit and its partnerships with vendors like VMware or Citrix, the UX challenge becomes almost invisible. We'll see how enterprises continue to approach this opportunity, which is ultimately more secure.

For certain use cases, field services for example, if a browser OS-based device either dies or gets broken or lost, no data is lost. A user can just go get a new Chromebook and sign in back where he or she left off. That's an unheard-of value proposition -- that begin-where-you-left-off concept is powerful.

One other problem enterprises may face is around Microsoft legacy infrastructure -- particularly around endpoint management. Microsoft has moved away from that to help bridge the divide, and Windows 10 is doing well. We'll see a lot more migration happening this year as the Windows 7 sunset comes closer.

What's driving this push toward a browser OS?

Klein: Ultimately it's about more automation and potential cost-savings. By automation, I mean the modern way [of deploying applications and desktops to end users] will be a better usage of time for IT instead of doing mundane, repeatable tasks. Moving down this path will alleviate some of the pain. Things like patching, these OSes update themselves. Those are the drivers and that's the opportunity around automation and managing across platforms more efficiently from an IT labor perspective.

Once you have the integration set and made that transition, you'll see cost savings. If done properly, you'll see the benefits of virtualization can get the enterprise to a much higher quality UX and offer an easier way to manage your apps in a way that makes more sense than the way it's being done today.

Why has the web browser become so important to the enterprise?

Klein: Ironically, people's perception of the user experience has changed and smartphones have conditioned us to interact [with each other] in a different way. It's partly tied to that. It's also tied to the fact enterprise app vendors have been all in on cloud and invested so heavily in it, they forced customers to embrace it. Whether it's SAP, Oracle, Microsoft or Google, cloud is the accepted way for things to evolve.

That's a change for big manufacturing customers, for example, who rely on big ERP and CRM platforms. Vendors have pushed their customers into the cloud in a way that wasn't necessarily smooth initially, but it's worked its way out. There have been enough successful transitions that organizations have bought in.

What happened was the browser became the vehicle for application access. It's the way people are accustomed to doing things now. The browser has become a containerized workspace and we're seeing vendors move into that direction.

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How could your organization benefit from a browser OS?
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To a large extent, you're addressing a "pull" scenario. The browser gets better; enterprises and Google put more development effort into interfaces, formats, and objects that can fulfill enterprise documentation, analysis, and other requirements; connectivity improves; non-Windows mobile devices get more capable, and so on.
There's also the "push" scenario: Microsoft tweaks the Office file format and your doc doesn't look or work the way it did before. They deluge users with OS updates, any of which is a potential headache for users and IT. 
Any smart enterprise today will prioritize browser-friendly development, interfaces, and applications over desktop OS-dependent platforms and applications. From a licensing and contract perspective, which is where I work, this has huge implications and potential cost-savings--companies who spend millions on a proprietary OS and a proprietary desktop productivity environment (Office), as well as numerous other licensing gotchas and restrictions can kiss it all goodbye.
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