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Are You Ready for Chromebooks?



Chromebooks, the notebook computers powered by Google's minimalist Chrome operating system are coming to market.  And they rely solely on browser-based applications and cloud storage. Is your IT department ready to set a place for them at the corporate table?

Google introduced the first commercial Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer at the Google I/O developer conference in May. They began hitting retail stores on June 15. But Google is offering the new devices to businesses and schools as a subscription service, charging companies $28 per month for Chromebooks in bulk.

Based on conversations with IT professionals at companies that had an early look at Chromebooks and participated in Google's pilot test of the notebooks earlier this year, many companies sound interested in incorporating them into the IT mix, but with conditions.

PC Killers?

While Chromebooks have a lot going for them, no one is yet willing to go on record and label them PC killers. Rumors of the death of the PC continue to be greatly exaggerated when it comes to serious business computing.

Unlike tablets, Chromebooks don't introduce a new form factor to computing. They look just like any other laptop or notebook. What they are though, is a return to IT's past, but a past brought up-to-date to perform in a web-based world.

The Chromebook is attempting to rewrite the rules about what companies can expect of their devices and what they can expect of networks and browser-based apps that live in the clouds, behind your firewall or are virtualized through technologies like Citrix and other remote access systems.

If it seems familiar, it should. It's the old client-server paradigm from the big iron mainframe days, revamped and revitalized for a much more dynamic and powerful environment. The terminals may still be relatively dumb, but the ecosystem they function in is smarter than ever.

The future of IT delivery

"The Chromebook is not a corporate tool…today," John Caughell, a marketing coordinator at Argenstratus, a virtual desktop service, told BusinessNewsDaily. "But the concept of a virtual device that directly and securely puts the user in touch with the enterprise's applications and data is the future and IT departments need to be aware of the implications. We believe the Chromebook model, while today a consumer item, is the way IT will be delivered to enterprises in the near future."

Because the Chromebook works in the cloud, the connectivity issue has becoming a rallying point for some critics, but the overwhelming majority of IT professionals BusinessNewsDaily talked with dismissed this notion as no longer being a deal breaker.

"We're at the point where you can be confident that you'll have connectivity," said Kevin Verde, the CIO of Jason's Deli, a national franchise company with units in 28 states that participated in the Google pilot program.

The company, Verde said, has been on Google Apps for about a year and a half. They deployed more than 100 of the first-generation Chromebooks and have been using them for four months.

Zero help desk tickets

"It's taken off like a weed in our company," he said. "They're really, really easy to manage. We've had next to zero help desk tickets."

In terms of user learning curve, Verde said, a bell-shaped curve seems to be emerging, with users at either end of the technical knowledge spectrum being quick to learn and adapt.

"I'd love the throw one of these to my Mom," he said.

Common favorabale views voiced by IT professionals: the Chromebook's rapid start-up time (as quick as 8 seconds), long battery life and ease of maintenance.

The leasing option is also a plus, especially for smaller businesses with constrained budgets.

"If I can get ten computers for $28 a month, that's great," said Christopher Castleman, the founder of Lake Effect Labs, an applications developer."It's a dream come true for someone like me right now. My entire company is pretty much set up through Google."

A compelling environment

Logitech, a computer peripherals company, was another participant in Google's pilot Chromebook program, eventually deploying 400 of the notebooks to employees ranging from the mailroom to the chairman of the board.

"In five minutes they were up and running," said Sanjay Dhar, the company's IT vice president."That was pretty compelling for us."

Many Logitech employees are now using Chromebooks as their primary computer and find they can accomplish nearly 100 percent of their work on them, Dhar said. For engineers and others who rely on processor- and memory-intensive applications such as Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), they serve as supplementary devices.

A key selling point for Dhar is the freedom from support issues that Chromebooks provide.

"The biggest hassles are all taken away," he said."It takes away a lot of noise from IT. "

Chromebooks also streamline how IT deals with stolen computers or computer failure. "In a Chrome environment, you just send them a new laptop," Dhar said. Since all the computers applications and data are stored in the cloud, there's no need to rebuild an individual's computer from the ground up. "It's a compelling environment, but it comes with certain restrictions and use cases."

Not all applications are available through Citrix and there is still uncertainty over total cost of ownership.

"Clarity on cost is not there right now," Dhar said.

And Chromebook aren't always the right choice for every worker. Much depends on the use case and its computing requirements.

Dhar compares it to auto ownership in Silicon Valley, where Logitech is located. When you drive around, you'll see driveways where both a Prius and an SUV are parked.

"The owners use the Prius for day-to-day driving, but when they go to Tahoe, they take the SUV," he said.

It's the same with computers.

"Chromebooks are like the Prius," he said. "You use them day-to-day, but when you want to do heavy lifting, you use a PC."

Senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and has a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.