Does Google's Chromebook threaten Windows' lock on enterprise computing?
As revealed at Google I/O in San Francisco this week, Samsung and Acer will produce cloud-centric notebooks running the lightweight, Web-based Chrome OS. The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook will retail for $429 for the WiFi-only model, and $499 for a version with a 3G radio. Acer's WiFi-only Chromebook will retail for $349. Both devices will be available June 15 in the United States via Amazon.com and Best Buy's online storefront.
Google also has plans to offer Chromebooks to businesses and educational institutions on a subscription basis, along with a cloud-management console so IT administrators can manage devices, applications and policies. The Chromebook business edition will cost $28 per user, per month; the education edition, $20 per user, per month. Those who opt for a subscription will be required to sign a three-year contract.
In addition, subscribers will have access to enterprise-level support, warranties and replacements, and regular hardware refreshes.
How does Chrome OS differ from Windows? For one thing, it boots faster: With no BIOS startup process, a Chromebook needs only eight seconds (Google claims) to ready itself for use. And unlike Windows, where the substantial majority of programs reside natively on the local hard drive, Chrome OS emphasizes the downloading and opening of Web applications, including Gmail and Google Docs, via the Chrome Brower. Because its center of gravity is in the cloud, the first Chromebooks feature 16GB SSDs (solid-state drives)-in other words, not a whole lot of memory for people who want to use a laptop for storing lots of media and rich documents. Battery life is around eight hours for both Samsung's and Acer's models.
Ultimately, Google is selling Chromebooks as the new paradigm of simplicity. "Chromebooks have many layers of security built in so there is no anti-virus software to buy and maintain," read a May 11 posting on The Official Google Blog. "Even more importantly, you won't spend hours fighting your computer to set it up and keep it up to date."
For subscribers on a three-year contract, a business Chromebook will ultimately cost you $1,008. During the same timeframe, the education edition will run you $720. That's not only a substantial markup from the retail non-subscription price, but it essentially places the Chromebook head-to-head in the price category against relatively powerful and tricked-out PCs running Windows 7.
Google is also introducing an always-connected, ultra-portable line of devices at a time when netbooks-the closest precursor to the Chromebook-is under heavy market share assault from tablets such as the Apple iPad and-however ironically-a growing family of Google Android tablets. A March survey by ChangeWave had 10 percent of respondents suggesting they'd purchased a tablet in lieu of a netbook, and netbook-focused manufacturers like Acer have found themselves struggling amid the new paradigm.
In light of that, the possibility exists that the Chromebook, despite the novelty of its cloud-based operating system, could find itself squeezed between two very big rocks: robust Windows laptops that can compete at roughly the same price point, and tablets that offer similar functionality in a lightweight package.
Google will need to demonstrate that Chromebooks really can meet the robust needs traditionally associated with a full-featured laptop, despite its cloud tether, while delivering the updates and upgrades that will make it a genuine value proposition for years. That could be a tough mission, and one that Google's competitors-most notably Microsoft-will seek to counter with all the tools at their disposal.