Google's Chromebook Gamble - InformationWeek
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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google's Chromebook Gamble

Businesses may hate managing PCs, but that doesn't mean they're ready to abandon the devil they know.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is correct in his assertion that the desktop computing model is fundamentally flawed. Managing computers and user access to them is a burden. Computer management should have been simplified and automated long ago.

Google on Wednesday proposed an alternative to the misery that is managing desktop computers: Chromebooks, a subscription service that combines notebook hardware with Chrome OS, Google's new operating system for Web software. It's a promising, potentially revolutionary move, but that doesn't mean that Google will achieve its goal of redefining the business computer market.

"The time has finally come to sweep the desktop clean, and start over with a machine that's design to run in the cloud," argued Dave Girouard, president of Google's enterprise group, in a press conference at the Google IO developer conference on Wednesday.

The value proposition is easy to understand: Less is more. Chromebooks promise fewer security worries, fewer user provisioning headaches, easier device and account management, and seamless operating system upgrades, all priced below what it costs to operate a traditional desktop computer.

If only it were that simple. For tech-savvy start-ups, which have yet to invest in hardware or software, the path to Google's world of managed computing in the cloud is clear and appealing. For everyone else, breaking with the desktop past to move to managed service in the cloud is a more difficult decision.

Google clearly wants government customers for its Chromebook managed service. It is offering Chromebooks to government agencies and schools for $20 per user per month, $8 less than it is charging businesses. But many of the Web applications used in government agencies require Internet Explorer. The Chrome browser, no matter how simple, secure, or speedy, isn't an option for some organizations, just as Google itself may not be an option.

The Web has won, declared Google's Vic Gundotra in 2009. But two years later, the Web is still not one platform as far as many organizations are concerned.

For established organizations or companies in fields where the Internet is less central to their operations, the path to Google's cloud may be too steep at the moment. The problem is not just that enterprises can't simply sweep the desktop clean; it's that there's an army of desktop royalists fighting against Google's revolutionaries. And the defenders of the king--let's call him Microsoft--have only just begun to fight.

Perhaps the clearest example of the forces arrayed against Google can be seen in Google's lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior. Google is suing the government because, it claims, the agency's Request for Quotations (RFQ) "specified that only the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite-Federal (BPOS-Federal) could be proposed."

If Google's allegations are accurate--and the company has made similar claims about the State of California's decision to award a hosted email contract to Microsoft last year--then it may be that longstanding IT relationships and habits carry more weight than the value proposition of Google's cloud-based services.

And then there's the drag of habit and the comfort of familiarity. The Web has won, but Windows is still standing. Google's Sundar Pichai acknowledged during Wednesday's Google I/O keynote that half of businesses still run Windows XP, an operating system released in 2001 and patched periodically since then. Google has made a fetish of speed, but a significant portion of its potential customers don't mind operating at a slower pace. In all likelihood, Google will be banging on some boardroom doors for the next decade before Chromebooks really take off.

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