The affordability, collaboration potential, manageability and portability of Chromebooks should prompt businesses that dismissed Google's Web-based operating system to reconsider.
That's the premise of a report released earlier this week by Forrester Research. And it's more or less the opposite of what Forrester CEO George Colony wrote about Chromebooks in 2011.
Colony rightly identified flaws with Chromebooks, inadequate attention to local storage and offline usage, but erred in seeing those issues as symptoms of a flawed Web-centric ideology. The dominant future architecture will rely on a mixture of powerful local devices and cloud services, he argued, insisting that apps will rise at the expense of the Web and Google's ad-based business model.
"[B]usiness strategies are not composed from wishful thinking or doctrinaire ideology," he wrote in a blog post more than two years ago. "What Google hopes will happen, will not make it happen."
Despite the accuracy of Colony's assessment of the power and appeal of native apps backed by cloud services, and of the ongoing need for local storage and offline functionality, what Google hopes is nonetheless starting to happen. Chromebooks are actually selling at a time when the market for PCs is shrinking. Some people are living in the cloud.
Google's vision isn't flawed, it's simply not universally appealing.
"First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."
This phrase, popularly misattributed to Gandhi and apparently adapted from a similar sentiment expressed by trade unionist Nicholas Klein in 1914, could be borrowed by Google to recount the brief history of Chromebooks.
Launched in mid-2011, Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung did not sell well initially. Nonetheless, Google insisted hardware running its Chrome OS was the answer to the woes of PC ownership: slow startup times, malware worries, software update hassles, management burden and cost.
Google's message has been heard. In the past twelve months, demand for Chromebooks has been growing. Thousands of schools have recognized the price, security and management benefits. New, affordable models from Samsung and Acer have helped, as have the addition of new hardware partners, HP and Lenovo, and new retail partners, Staples and Wal-Mart. The tripling of retail stores selling the devices (now more than 6,600 stores) has mattered too.
Though Google remains too coy to cite sales figures, some Chromebook sales statistics are starting to emerge. Earlier this year, Acer said its C7 Chromebook accounted for between 5% and 10% of the company's U.S. computer sales during November and December 2012. Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Group, said that in the U.S., Chromebooks represent between 20% and 25% of the under-$300 consumer notebook market, a segment that accounts for about 15% to 20% of the overall U.S. notebook market.
In 2011, Google SVP Sundar Pichai said Google's research suggested that most companies could move 75% of their employees to Chrome OS immediately. That was a best-case scenario for Google and of course companies didn't move three-quarters of their workers to Chrome OS.
But in 2013, Forrester's report notes that "27.8% of global information workers report using Chrome 'most frequently' as their browser." Coincidentally, the report says "28% of enterprises have some interest in Chromebooks." Interest in tablets is higher still, 82%, but having more than a quarter of businesses considering Chromebooks, even for pilot testing, after only two years in the market represents meaningful success.
That's not to say Chromebooks are right for every business or use case. For example, it appears they're not the right choice for businesses in China. An unnamed CIO quoted in the report said, "Gmail and Google Apps simply don't work in China — period."
There's some irony in that observation, however: Chromebooks continue to be sought after for their security, a significant concern for executives toting devices in China. Last week, a security manager at a major Internet company recently reached out to inquire about the availability of a Chromebook so a colleague could travel to an upcoming security conference with less fear of being hacked.
In any event, absent the need for business-critical Windows applications, pro-level media creation applications, heavy offline usage or the mobility allowed by tablets, Chromebooks can fit into many business IT scenarios.
"Chromebooks are not for every company, nor for every employee, but they can be a valuable piece of your workforce computing portfolio for some types of organizations," the report concludes.