Google Chromebooks Pit Local Loyalists vs. Cloud Converts

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2011-05-23

Google Chromebooks Pit Local Loyalists vs. Cloud Converts

For anyone who came away from Google I/O believing Google (GOOG:NASDAQ) was entering the hardware computer business with some stripped-down notebooks, they were mistaken.

Certainly, Google officials touted Samsung and Acer notebooks based on the company's Chrome Operating System for running applications strictly in the cloud, hosted on Google's servers.

The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook will sport a 12.1-inch screen and will cost $429 for WiFi-only; the WiFi+3G model will run $499. Acer's 11.6-inch model Chromebook will have fewer bells and whistles and will run $349. The first Chromebooks will be available June 15 online from Best Buy and

Most analysts barely blinked at the value proposition the company touted: Web OS based machines that boot in 8 seconds and only enough local storage for caching.

"I think they're doomed," IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell told eWEEK. "They are essentially consumer wireless thin clients that depend completely on a constant internet connection and web-based apps. While we have some of that, it's far, far, far from ubiquitous. As a point of reference, the entire worldwide market for wireless thin clients last year was around 50,000 units."

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, who looks at the potential impact of computing devices from the consumers' standpoint, noted that the appeal of Chromebooks at current price points is limited, partially because the devices themselves will prove limiting for users.

"On the reference design I tested [the CR-48, which though similar in hardware though not as full-featured as the models shipping from Samsung and Acer], you can't use any local software, install drivers to printers, download files from USB flash drives..." Epps told eWEEK.

This holds true for the current Samsung and Acer machines, which use only a minimal amount of flash storage for local caching. These machines also leverage Google Cloud Print, the Web-based printing service many have found great when it works and useless when it doesn't.

Those who have a Canon Powershot or some other digital camera and want to port their photos from those cameras to a Chromebook won't be able to. How about using a desktop sharing application, such as Citrix GoToMeeting? Sorry, a Chromebook isn't the right machine for you.

Rajen Sheth, group product manager for Chrome OS for business, said Google hoped to convey that the Chrome OS value proposition is the cloud, not the elegant yet minimalistic shells made by leading computer makers.

"Where this is going to be successful, is places where people are moving to their Web as their primary means of interacting with applications," Sheth told eWEEK. "More and more applications that used to be only on the desktop are being moved to the browser."  

One of those places where Chromebooks thrive is at reseller Appirio, where the majority of their computing operations are run in the cloud. The company uses Google Apps for collaboration, for customer relationship management and WorkDay for human resource management, CTO Glenn Weinstein told eWEEK.  

Appirio is a pilot partner for Google's Cr-48 Chromebook, with 250 U.S. employees using the machines since January. With the exception of desktop sharing apps, such as Citrix GotoMeeting, Appirio workers used Chromebooks for just about every work function that involves a computer, including Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Chat.

Weinstein added that Appirio, one of Google's top reseller partners, would love to not only use Samsung and Acer Chromebooks in house, but to begin selling them to partners.

"The cost of ownership of Chromebook is an order of magnitude below the cost of a laptop. We would love to accrue that savings internally and pass them on to our customers," Weinstein said.

Chromebooks, Weinstein explained, simplify the IT experience, saving IT managers the trouble of software distribution, antivirus patrols, laptop ghosting and hardware imaging, among other tasks.

Google Chromebooks Tough Sell for Some Enterprises

Losing a Windows-based laptop is a huge deal, because the locally-stored data will be lost with it. Losing a Chromebook, where the apps and data reside in the cloud, has all of the inconvenience of a mosquito bite, or so Google espouses.

While some argue that the lack of a lot of internal storage is a negative for the Chromebooks, Weinstein said those folks miss the point: the Chromebook pushes data to the cloud, which is a a huge step forward for enterprise security.

Weinstein noted that most security breaches are mostly due to lost laptops, unsecured laptops, thumb drives, or corporate network breaches.

"The security concern about the cloud is the ultimate red herring because you almost never hear about that. You never hear someone got into the database and viewed customers' data. Because of the data sharding Google does across multiple servers, even if there was a physical intrusion of Google data center and someone grabbed a hard drive, it wouldn't be useful because you wouldn't make any sense out of it. Chromebooks' storage limitations are its strengths."

IDC analyst David Daoud said he sees the sweet spot for Chromebooks in the enterprise, where the cloud computing model is making its way with deliberation.

Cost-constrained companies with IT managers charged with filling IT infrastructure are tasked to look at the cloud as an IT alternative for cost savings. This is particularly true in government, where budgets may be slashed by 10, 15 20 percent in government. "Cloud is a potential solution to cost-containment. Customer relation app, e-mail apps to cloud.

The challenge, Daoud noted, that the enterprise market remains very comfortable with the Microsoft Windows platform and the existing IT infrastructure. Not only legacy Windows apps, but legacy Unix/Linux-based programs built for a specific application.

To bring Chromebooks to the mass market, Google is going to need serious understanding of how IT infrastructure in the enterprise works and how to get there.

"What else is Google offering to enterprise to make it compelling?" Daoud asked, noting that enterprise procurement specialists are accustomed to asking soup-to-nuts implementations.

"Chromebooks bring their own sets of values, and companies will try it, but I'm very skeptical as far as it going mainstream, mass market in the near term," Daoud said. "It will be difficult for Google to tackle that mindset without clearly understanding it the way HP, Dell, IBM and the other big system integrators do."

Forrester analyst Frank Gillet said there is a place for Chromebooks in the marketplace, noting that the model is a twist on the thin client model, albeit with a rich client. Unlike thin clients, Chromebooks include processors, sensors and flash memory.

He envisions Chromebooks, when crossed with a Citrix Receiver or VMware ACE virtualized desktop product that let users visit apps remotely, will be appealing for a certain class of information workers. For example, this will be valuable for companies who need to temporarily issue computers to a contractor.

Google's Sheth agreed. "You can use this with browser-based apps behind the firewall, with Citrix-based apps. A lot of customers are moving almost everything to a browser or to a virtualized form factor so in those kinds of cases, this works extremely well."

However, like Daoud, Gillet questions whether Google is equipped to larger numbers of commercial customers maintaining fleets of Chromebooks.  

"They sell search appliances and Google Apps, so they have some experience dealing with commercial organizations, but not lot of broad experience," Gillett said. "My biggest question is: Is Google cut out to do this, which is a far piece from organizing the world's information online and advertising?"


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