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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.
The potential for network bottlenecks may also limit Chromebook uptake in the near term. Google Docs works fine in the cloud; the periodic transfers of data during file save operations usually go unnoticed. But large files don't work well with Web apps connected to the cloud by thin pipes, which is why Google is backing high-speed Internet projects. Companies that rely on business processes predicated on the transfer of large files may also find the limited local storage options of Chromebooks and of Web apps ill-suited for their needs at the moment.

Then there are ongoing concerns about cloud security and reliability, not to mention control of data. As the recent Amazon Web Services outage demonstrated, cloud services can fail and customers can lose data. On-premises systems may be at least as prone to problems, but the difference is that when failures happen in-house, there's someone to fire.

Outages in the cloud bring an apology, a promise that next time will be better, and maybe some service credit. Picking up and moving to another cloud service provider when you're unhappy isn't necessarily easy or even possible. And there's no refund option, at least not that has been disclosed, for three-year Chromebook contracts.

Nevertheless, Google's gamble is a good one. Apple could have done it. The company proved with its iPhone, and later with its iPad, that normal people--those willing to trade control for ease of use--appreciate a curated experience. But it hasn't gone far enough, fast enough. Apple's leadership clearly sees promise in cloud computing--that's why it build a massive data center in North Carolina--but the company's heritage as a maker of premium hardware and software limits its willingness to go all-in as a commodity computing service provider.

Google on the other hand can rely on its search ad revenue to monetize and subsidize Web-based computing as a service. It can afford to reduce its cut of Web app revenue in its Chrome Web Store to 5% as a bid to encourage more Web apps.

If the computer management experience is as bad Google's executives suggest--and few would argue that PCs are painless--then Google's gamble is likely to pay off eventually. Schools and small businesses will be the first on board and they may create the momentum necessary to sustain a desktop exodus.

Google's competitors won't take this lying down. But for many of them, it's not just a matter of standing up; it's a matter of catching up because Google is headed fast toward the future.