Why Business IT Shouldn't Shrug Off Chrome OS - InformationWeek

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7/16/2009
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Why Business IT Shouldn't Shrug Off Chrome OS

It sends a message about the future of the Web on employees' desktops.

In the two weeks since Google announced its Chrome OS, it has been hailed as a Windows killer and written off as dead on arrival--quite a range of outcomes for software that isn't even finished.

Whether Google can unseat Windows on consumer netbooks doesn't really matter if you're in business IT. Beyond the excitement over Google's announcement is a more critical question, one that CIOs have been wrestling with for some time: Just how dramatically will Web-centric computing change how software and applications get delivered to end users?

Google argues that the Web will be the platform for virtually all applications, with the browser as the access method for getting to them. Given the growing popularity of software as a service, both for consumers and enterprises, Google paints a compelling picture.

But there are two problems with that vision. First, CIOs have any number of critical Windows-oriented applications that won't migrate to the Web because of development costs, technical problems, or security and privacy concerns, ruling out a Web-only existence for large tracks of employees. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer maintains that half of users' PC time is spent outside the browser. That doesn't mean there's no role at all for a lightweight, Web-optimized OS, but such a product may be best suited for a subset of employees, or alongside Windows, not in place of it.

Second, while it's true the Web disrupts the way applications are delivered and consumed in the enterprise, old-guard software providers--from Microsoft to Oracle to SAP--are adapting to that reality. So are CIOs, who are accepting SaaS as an option for more applications and for a larger share of their IT infrastructure. However, Google seems to be equating the Web's power to transform applications with the need for a cloud operating system like Chrome. IT executives aren't buying it.

While Chrome OS will debut on consumer netbooks, with products promised by late next year, Google is designing it to scale up to full-size PCs. This is typical Google, and history suggests that if it finds success with consumers (e.g., e-mail, online documents, and search), it will test the enterprise market as well.

A senior IT executive at a Fortune 50 company says Chrome OS "does spark our interest." However, he's quick to note the company has many applications that aren't browser-based, so "initially it would be for niche groups of users."

The Legacy App Problem
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory runs a mix of Windows, Linux, and Mac machines. CIO Jerry Johnson says he'd like to reduce, not increase, the number of operating systems the lab manages. Johnson, whose organization is overseen by the Department of Energy and conducts classified and unclassified scientific research, isn't all that intrigued by the promise of a better Web experience. Of the lab's 4,200 employees, "only 20% could live the majority of their time in SaaS," he says, referring to back office and human resources applications. The lab has a substantial portfolio of business and research apps that would be costly to transform to the Web or be barred from it because of government security controls.

Employees at the nonprofit Nature Conservancy seem like ideal candidates for Google-powered netbooks. They rely on Web apps from Salesforce.com and WebEx and spend most of their time in the field, where a lightweight, portable computer is an asset.

But the organization also has a number of business-critical applications, such as a graphics-intensive map program, that require client software. Israel Sushman, a technology and systems operations manager with Nature Conservancy, says he can't imagine that the organization would go to the effort of rewriting these apps for a new operating system or to push them to the Web.

That's a hurdle to Google or any other operating system provider that hopes to unseat Microsoft in the enterprise. "Legacy apps last forever, so even as organizations add OS-neutral apps, most organizations have a majority of their applications requiring Windows," says Gartner analyst Michael Silver.

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