When Google launched the Chromebook concept in 2011, we embraced its cloud computing vision and were encouraged by the low-cost hardware. It certainly had the potential to shake up the PC market in a way that the netbook failed to do.
But two years on and Chromebooks seem like a failure. Data from NetMarketShare reveals that barely 0.02 per cent of overall web traffic comes from Google's Chrome OS, while devices such as the HP Pavilion 14 and high-end Chromebook Pixel have disappointed with poor hardware choices and ho-hum performance.
It's no wonder that, given a choice between using an iPad or a Chromebook for business, many companies have been opting for tablets. They are lightweight and long-lasting, fast and flexible, effortlessly net-connected and give you access to thousands of business apps.
But don't count the Chromebook out just yet. JP Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, argues that now is the time for businesses to take Chromebooks seriously.
Gownder maintains that if companies are willing to segment their workforces (offering Chromebooks alongside PCs and tablets), adopt Gmail/Google Apps or deploy devices in customer-facing scenarios (such as kiosks), Chromebooks are "definitely worth investigating."
Chromebooks remove hassle
"Chromebooks offer the prospect of radically reducing the amount of time IT staff spend 'keeping the lights on' for devices," he adds, pointing out that they "offer high uptime, low service costs, and scalable deployment of new web-based applications and content."
That said, Gownder is a realist. "Chromebooks won't replace all or even most Windows PCs, Macs, and tablets," he says. But there is evidence that, as the PC market shrinks, Chromebooks are bucking the downward trend. NPD Group estimates that Chromebooks have captured between 20 and 25 per cent of the low-end US computing market, with many finding their way into educational establishments.
Adoption might be slow, but it's steady. There's nothing wrong with Google's vision of personal cloud computing. Devices like the Samsung Chromebook prove that it can work and many of us already spend the bulk of our time working inside a web browser. The Chromebook is still an idea that's waiting for technology to catch up.
It certainly has businesses interested. News UK (formerly News International) trialled Chromebooks with its journalists. The company's head of infrastructure and operations, Gareth Wright, told Techworld, "The hardware is extremely good value for a Chromebook and due to our use of Google Apps, they are easy to manage from an IT perspective as there aren't any 'thick applications' or a heavyweight OS to install, configure and support like with an OS X or Wintel device."
On a smaller scale, Philip Clifford-Brown of Lion Lane Consulting told TechRadar that Chromebooks are a "compelling option for businesses that make use of web applications." He cites their easy usability, which reduces the need for training, and the speed at which they can be deployed.
Users can "self-install and self-enroll," Clifford-Brown says. "Try giving a Chromebook to a new user - they will be working effectively within a few minutes."
Chromebooks are low risk
There are other advantages - the low capital cost compared to a traditional laptop, quick boot times, excellent battery life and optional 3G/4G connectivity for go-anywhere mobile working. Crucially, Chromebooks require (almost) zero maintenance. There are no lengthy patching cycles, upgrades, antivirus or anti-malware installs.
Security is paramount. Files are safely stored in the cloud and the file system on a Chromebook is locked down with eCryptfs.
Yet working with a Chromebook requires a mindset shift away from localised storage and applications. If you're not prepared to embrace corporate Gmail and Google Apps, then one of the biggest arguments against using a Chromebook is its reliance on an internet connection to do anything useful.
Even so, Clifford-Brown disagrees with that argument. "Given that many businesses today have a better/faster wireless communications infrastructure than the home user, the criticism that Chromebooks require 'always on' connectivity is almost moot," he says.
"Also consider that many business applications such as Enterprise Resource Planning, Customer Relationship Management and Business Process Automation tools are web-deployed, so this endorses Google's 'web-only' approach."
Jeff Nolan, senior director of On Demand at Ping Identity, points out another problem. "As much as I wanted to use my Chromebook for business, the fact that I couldn't use third-party services such as Webex was a significant disappointment," he told TechRadar.
"It points to a larger issue that Java isn't supported. So any web app that requires Java will also not work without going to a remote desktop solution."
Of course, there are workarounds. While there's no Skype support, Google Hangouts provide a similar video conferencing function. Don't use Google Apps? Microsoft's Office 365 gives you access to familiar Word, Excel and PowerPoint web apps.
Want to work without an internet connection? Chrome OS enables Google Drive's offline mode by default.
Chromebooks represent a possible future for business computing. But to be happy with a Chromebook is to understand what it can and can't do; what it is and isn't good for.
If your business relies on dedicated PC or Mac software, then a Chromebook can't replace a traditional laptop or desktop system. But as Google fixes and improves its Chrome OS and web apps become more fully-featured, the benefits of working online will ultimately outweigh our fondness for traditional computers.
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