Google failed to take the world by storm when it launched its Chromebook laptops two years ago but the devices shouldn’t be written off just yet, according to IT analyst house Forrester.

Chromebooks are laptops that aim to deliver everything a user needs through the cloud and Google’s web-based operating system, Chrome OS. The machines – so far manufactured by Samsung, Acer, Lenovo and HP – come with Google Apps preinstalled, allowing users to do things like create documents, listen to music and edit photos, all without leaving their browser.

Researchers of a report out this week– called It’s Time to Reconsider Chromebooks – argue that businesses should give Chromebooks another chance because of their low cost, manageability, collaboration capabilities and portability.

Last year, Forrester surveyed 2,330 IT executives and technology decision makers from the UK, the US, Canada, France and Japan. It found that 28 per cent of enterprises have some interest in Chromebooks.

Despite this relatively low level of interest, Forrester maintains that Chromebooks fill a legitimate computing niche and are particularly relevant to companies with over 1,000 employees that are able to segment their workforce for a Chromebook deployment.

Forrester argues that “Chromebooks make sense” in a world where the Chrome browser has 750 million active users browsing across multiple operating systems.

The analysts claim that employees quickly start utilising the collaborative capabilities that come with Google Apps when Chromebooks are deployed in the enterprise. The collaborative features allow employees to simultaneously work on a word processing document, spreadsheet or slideshow and chat at the same time.

Businesses such as News UK (formerly News International) and Reed recruitment agency are using Chromebooks in a bid to improve the way they operate. Reed is in the process of rolling out 110 Chrome OS machines to members of its sales team that were previously using Windows thin clients.

Reed CTO, Mark Ridley, told Techworld that users are so far finding the devices incredibly easy to use and that they don’t want to go back to their Windows machines. He added that employees have been very quick to praise the speed of the Chromebooks and Chromeboxes.

“Members of the sales team are saying, “My customers used to have to wait for me on the phone and now I’m waiting for them,”” he said.

Chromebooks also offer time and cost savings that come about as a result of cutting the workload of IT departments, according to Forrester. This is because the devices require very little time in terms of imaging (roughly 15 minutes), deployment and maintenance. In theory, this frees up time for staff in the IT department so they can focus on driving innovation into the enterprise with new technologies like 3D printing and developing the business.

Chromebooks also break down less and when they do it’s easy to migrate users onto a new machine, according to Forrester.

Reed are rolling the devices out at a rate of 20 per week and, while the feedback Ridley has received so far has been largely positive, users are still complaining about a lack of Office and the fact that Chrome OS users have to connect to special cloud-enabled printers.

However, Ridley maintained that Chromebooks and Chromeboxes make perfect sense for companies using Gmail and Google Apps, providing they have a solid broadband network and aren’t too mobile. For example, employees that spend travelling, particularly flying, will struggle to take full advantage of Chromebooks.

Limitations

The Google laptops have received some bad press since they launched, including the NetMarketShare report, which showed the devices only account for 0.02 per cent of global web traffic.

Although they were cheap, starting at £199, Google did little to educate buyers on how enterprises could use them, according to Forrester. The questionable consumer sales have seen a recent upswing but it’s fair to say that Google failed to capture the market in the same way that Apple did with its iPad, for example.

The public sector and healthcare industry are most willing to try Chromebooks while those in the media, entertainment and leisure sectors have little use for the machines. They are also completely impractical for employees in certain verticals, such as a field engineer in the oil and gas sector, who needs to be out of the office a lot and on their feet for long periods of time. In these types of scenarios, Forrester believes that a tablet device would be a better fit.

Forrester claims that one of the main things holding Chromebooks back is the fact that most legacy applications aren’t optimised to be delivered via Chrome. In order for applications to be used on Chromebooks they typically have to be recoded to modern web technologies or virtualized and adapted to Chrome.

Chromebooks also require enterprises to embrace and commit to a specific computing architecture and cloud platform that they may not be familiar with. This can involve turning their backs on legacy systems and legacy applications they have used for decades.

Meanwhile, enterprises may be wary of the life expectancy of Chromebooks following Google’s recent culling of services like Google Reader and Google Buzz.

Deal killer scenarios

The analysts realise that there are occasions when it’s just not possible for enterprises to even consider Chromebooks. For example, Forrester suggest that companies with a large presence in China are likely to dismiss Chromebooks because of the Chinese government’s security and censorship measures around Gmail and Google Apps.

Meanwhile, the analyst house also argues that employees in finance and accounting won’t be satisfied with the fairly basic spreadsheet capabilities that come with Google Apps.

Forrester analyst and lead author of the report, J.P. Gownder, told Techworld: “ I think Chrome OS will continue to evolve over the next few years. The prospects of a truly cloud-oriented architecture will only improve with time. But Chrome will probably improve greatly, and won't necessarily resemble today's browser-oriented user experience.”

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