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Android apps on Chromebooks hurt appeal as thin clients

All future Chromebook releases will support Android apps, which brings concerns regarding their security, management and overall usefulness as thin clients.

Support for Android apps on Chromebooks raises questions about how suitable the devices are as thin clients.

Eight current Google Chromebook models support Android apps, as will all future releases.  Chromebooks are popular as thin clients because they're inexpensive and don't store data locally, but their support for Android apps could make them less appealing in that regard. Enterprise mobility management (EMM) software may be a necessity to control what users install and update from Google Play, the official Android app store, which creates additional work for IT professionals. But the low price of Chromebooks and Google's strong support still hold some sway.

"The challenge with the latest Chromebooks is they can actually run apps, and you don't get to dictate when software gets updated," said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst of research firm Moor Insights and Strategy in Austin, Texas. "That is a security risk and makes Chromebooks more complex."

'Major concerns' about security

Security is the biggest selling point of thin clients and desktop virtualization. Not storing any data locally minimizes the number of endpoints with critical data. Adding Android apps to Chromebooks changes this, because if users have Chromebooks as thin clients and download those apps on their desktop, it creates an endpoint with data stored on it. Users can easily store business information in Android apps locally on the device itself, unless IT uses EMM software to prevent this, which isn't the case with VDI or with web apps.  

"There are major concerns," said Mehran Basiratmand, CTO of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. "EMM is now a necessity to control and to manage these devices."

Android apps themselves can also present a security threat, despite Google's efforts to better screen its app store.

"The vetting ... has left a lot to be desired," said Rory Monaghan, an independent consultant in Phoenix.

Thin client price ranges

A look at the starting prices for a variety of Chromebooks and traditional mobile thin clients:

Low-end Chromebooks

Acer Chromebook 11 (11.6"): $179.99

HP 11 G5 Chromebook (11.6"): $199

High-end Chromebooks

Dell Chromebook 13 (13"): $299

Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Yoga Chromebook (11.6"): $349

Mobile thin clients

HP mt20 Mobile Thin Client (14"): $399

Dell Latitude 3480 (14"): $760

EMM to the rescue?

There typically are no apps on thin clients. The ability to download Android apps on Chromebooks defeats the purpose of using the devices for this purpose, Moorhead said.

"You lose control of the user," he said.

Organizations will move away from Chromebooks and toward other types of thin clients that don't install apps on the device itself, Moorhead added.

Florida Atlantic University uses Dell Wyse thin clients because their ThinOS operating system is considered one of the most secure OSes today, according to IT experts. There's no API for ThinOS, so in the same way a developer can't build an application to run on it, hackers can't build an attack vector for malware or any kind of virus.

"We use Dell Wyse for areas where security is super-important," Basiratmand said.

[Chromebooks] are still a low-cost, low-maintenance way of delivering corporate desktops and apps.
Matt KoshtIT director at a utility company in Alaska

For organizations to securely allow employees to use Chromebooks, they'd need to have EMM software to block access to Google Play. But many organizations still don't use EMM, and the whole point of deploying thin clients is to avoid having to manage the contents of users' devices, Moorhead said.

Despite the new challenges that Android apps on Chromebooks present, some IT professionals still view the devices as appealing thin clients.

"It's a very narrow product segment and not cheap," said Matt Kosht, an IT director at a utility company in Alaska. "[Chromebooks] are still a low-cost, low-maintenance way of delivering corporate desktops and apps."

Google also offers strong support and continuous updates and improvements for Chrome OS, Kosht said.

Why add Android apps on Chromebooks?

Chromebooks have seen profound growth in the education market. Between 2014 and 2016, their share of the U.S. K-12 market grew from 38% to 58%, while the combined share of Apple macOS and iOS devices shrank from 34% to 19%, according to Futuresource Consulting.

Chromebook users have access to thousands of web apps, including Microsoft Office apps. But web apps don't allow users to be as productive when offline, and they can't always take full advantage of native device features. Android apps help address these issues. Additionally, newer Chromebooks come with a much larger amount of internal storage, which users will be able to take advantage of when downloading Android apps.

"This is awesome for the users," Monaghan said.

Next Steps

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