Google’s Chromebook have sold by the bucket-load to the hard-pressed US education sector and the arguments for using them at home - simplicity, security, low purchase and running costs – have been well made by the platform’s growing journalist and technical fan-base. Turn to the platform’s prospects in business and suddenly things look strangely uncertain.
Something is going off-kilter here and I’ve come to the conclusion that the something off kilter is almost certainly Google itself.
The enterprise case for a platform such as the Chromebook, with its business-friendly cloud-oriented applications, should be open and shut. Google has its Chromebooks for Work initiative which points out the lower business costs of running an infrastructure based on cloud applications in place of PCs, which runs to thousands of pounds/dollars per system, per annum.
These sort of calculations are always complex and it’s not clear to what extent Google’s numbers are based on assumptions about using its own services such as Google Apps for Work which can, of course, be used with any platform and don’t depend on the Chromebook.
Enterprise vendors see potential in the platform and have added support to their systems, for instance Dell Kace’s integration of Google’s own Management Console into the K1000 data centre appliance. It is even possible to access Windows application on the platform using connectors such as the Citrix XenApp virtual app delivery and the Chrome Citrix Receiver.
But here’s the odd thing – finding enterprises or large organisations other than US school districts that are using Chromebooks on anything other than informal scale (or will admit to it) is like hunting blue unicorns. Either they are all shy about the issue or there just aren’t many of them out there.
Part of the problem has been Chromebooks themselves, almost all of which have been cheaply- made systems based around under-powered processors such as Intel’s Celeron 2830 or Nvidia Tegra K1 that simply lack the grunt to function as a business workhorse running a dozen browser tabs at a time. Google did come up with the glorious Chromebook Pixel but that was exactly the wrong sort of device, a mere developer extravagance with limited distribution that was ostentatiously handed out for nothing at Google's I/O conference.
It could also be the case that while businesses see long-term benefit to using cloud applications, they aren’t enamoured with the ones Google has to offer.
Despite its management and security problems, Windows 10 by contrast offers a known set of challenges organisations have a lot of practice at overcoming. The application base – Office365 for instance - is stable and integrates better with what enterprises run today than a cloud model based on Google.
Google could counter this predictable inertia but has signally failed to do beyond throwing up a few optimistic websites and some marketing releases. On the topic of Chromebooks in business, Google always seems to have bigger things to worry about. Google also has a reputation for creative destruction, of eating projects that don’t thrive, a sort of corporate 'here today and gone tomorrow' that contrasts with Microsoft’s stubborn refusal to give up on its ideas when lesser mortals would take the sensible route out.
Enterprises know than Microsoft is in it for the long haul but Google? This is a company that makes its money predominantly from Internet advertising platforms and beyond Android, a mobile platform that extends its reach, the Chromebook and Chrome OS looks have the air of experiments.
But the real danger isn’t that Google will just give up on the Chromebook but that with a lack of cloud applications that can be accessed through the platform, its pioneering thunder is stolen by Microsoft. At some point, Microsoft will invent its own version of the Chromebook as a platform for the cloud apps CEO Satya Nadella says are the company’s future and people will lap it up. Microsoft knows how to do applications.
As early taster of this is the appearance of cheap Windows 10 ‘Cloudbook’ PC which as anyone who studies them for 30 second will tell you have little to do with the cloud and are just old-fashioned PCs cut down to size and re-skinned with Windows 10. They can’t be cloud computers – the applications execute locally. But the warning is there. This branch of Windows 10 could easily dovetail into a more Chromebook-like form once Microsoft has the services to sit on top of such an architecture.
Chromebooks today are getting better and better, solving lots of small issues that made them mildly frustrating in the past (support for Office documents, a compromised offline mode, poor support for PDFs to name a few). But they remain a device bought overwhelmingly by a handful of home users, a few techies who need a second computer and US schools. Their global distribution is amazingly poor for a device that has been around for four years and their impact on the UK outside the US is barely measureable.
Larger organisations need a stronger signal that Google is serious about turning the Chromebook into a global cloud computing standard. Its champions inside Google and its partners outside need to work a bit harder to convince business that the Chromebook is a contender after all.