Business Report

Google's Business Experiment: Nothing but Web

Computers that do everything in a Web browser are touted as an inexpensive alternative for companies.

Decades of Moore’s Law have trained us to expect every new computer to do more than the one before. Google’s most ambitious foray into cloud computing, however, has it wooing businesses with computers that do much less.

In the cloud: A model uses a Chromebook on an airplane.

Those computers are known as Chromebooks. The laptops, officially launched in June, use an operating system called ChromeOS that is little more than a souped-up version of Google’s Chrome Web browser. “Chromebooks came from this realization that cloud computing gives an opportunity to rethink what the desktop is,” says Rajen Sheth, Google’s program manager for Chromebooks. The pitch to businesses is slightly more prosaic: outfitting and supporting workers with Google’s Chromebooks costs a lot less than giving them conventional PCs.

Google offers Chromebooks under a subscription model, where each machine costs between $20 and $33 per month. That price includes support and a promise that a replacement will be priority-shipped for any computer that breaks. Gartner research estimates that the total cost of ownership to a business is between $3,300 and $5,800 annually for a regular desktop computer, and more for laptops. The cost of owning a Chromebook, according to Google, is simply 12 times its monthly subscription cost—at most, $396 per year.

In typical Google fashion, Chromebooks were not released as a fully polished product. They first appeared in December 2010, when Google sent a prototype, the Cr-48, to thousands of volunteer testers and journalists (read Technology Review’s review of the Cr-48). Feedback from that experiment was used in creating the first Chromebooks available for sale, which appeared this summer and are made by Samsung and Acer.

Despite the low cost, Chromebooks outperform conventional PCs in some respects. They take only eight seconds to boot up and can manage even a long workday on a single battery charge. Yet logging in to find nothing but a browser—no desktop with shortcuts, no conventional applications such as Microsoft Office—is unnerving. Whether you’re composing e-mail, creating a presentation, or editing an image, you have to do it using the Web. Without an Internet connection, very few Chromebook apps will work at all.

Sheth says that poses no problem for many workers. “A significant proportion of people in business today just use a browser for everything they do,” he says. Many call center workers and traveling sales reps already rely on software accessed through a browser. In fact, before leading Chromebook, Sheth was responsible for much of Google’s success in convincing companies to adopt business versions of Web-based apps such as Gmail.

Sheth’s most clearly detailed business case for Chromebooks revolves around what the laptops offer to IT staff. There’s no need to install and configure security software, because the only software on the computer—the ChromeOS operating system—is updated automatically by Google and encrypts all saved data. What customization tasks remain can be handled using a slick Web-accessible dashboard.

“There’s a huge pain point for IT managers around manageability, upgrades, and security,” says Frank Gillett, who covers emerging technologies in IT for Forrester Research. “Google has built a back-end service for Chromebooks that takes care of all that very well.”

Sheth declined to say how many Chromebooks have shipped, but there are some signs the market for Web-only computers may prove larger than many anticipated. Gillett recently surveyed IT buyers and found that around 16 percent of them said their users could survive with just a Web browser. “I expected to prove they’re really skeptical, but they weren’t,” he says. Even so, Gillett still considers Chromebooks an “experiment” rather than a polished product line.

As Google upgrades the ChromeOS operating system, its stripped-down computers are likely to become more capable. Full support was recently added for the business package Citrix, which allows a Chromebook user to log in to a remote desktop and use Windows. Sheth says the important thing for Google is that the Chromebook gain a toehold in the market. “We’re really aiming for the future vision of the enterprise. Today is the market entry strategy, not the end point,” he says. He predicts that it will be another three to five years before most business tasks are done through a Web browser.

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