ChromeBook reinvents the Thin Client

Google’s Android is probably the mobile platform that, in the popular perception, is coming closest to the iPhone. Now there’s the ChromeBook. It’s a couple of weeks since the announcement, so there’s been chance for reactions to hit the web. Time for a round-up, then.

First, a recap. Sundar Pichai presented the Day 2 keynote at Google I/O from the Chrome team. The Chromebook presentation occupied the second half of this. The case for Chromebook is that, these days, most users spend most of their time on the Web (as I’m doing now, creating this post). That’s whether they’re private individuals or corporate users. Individuals upload pictures to Facebook, and communicate with friends either there or on Twitter (or possibly e-mail).

Corporates are adopting cloud services for collaboration, ordering, sales management, and all the services which used to need large servers. Given a wide range of online apps, there’s almost no need for the historic baggage of disc storage, system checking, backup, antivirus and so on. So Chrome, and the Chromebook, throw all this away. The Chromebook is what we used to call a Thin Client: no processing power, no local storage, just apps and data. in the cloud. It’s an always-on, always-connected world (of course, so long as your provider – Google – doesn’t go down; it’s been known, but then so do corporate centres).

What’s neat is the ability to register online apps as file handlers; and these are integrated into the context menus. So, for example, images might be handled by Facebook, by a screen viewer, or by an image editor app: all these show up as right-click options.

Where the hand-waving comes is when Google admit that devices are sometimes actually disconnected: so that some apps (Gmail and Google Docs, for early starters) are now available for offline use. We didn’t hear what that means in terms of a return to local storage, local processing and so on … But the I/O presentation rounds off with some interesting enterprise use cases, which would certainly be easily predictable to anyone whose memory goes back to the old thin client days or to Sun’s web client machine for that matter. Netbook technologies never made the mainstream somehow. Will it be different this time?

Well, with a little time to consider, who thinks what? TechRepublic’s Jason Hiner thinks that corporate IT will get on board. Eventually. Just as with cloud services, perhaps, the suggestion is that it will take a while, but the business case will eventually compel attention. Not impossible, I’d say, that Chromebooks will appear by the back door – brought in by business users, like the iPad in many companies. Especially when they go on sale on Amazon at compelling prices.

But for the corporate heavyweights, George Colony, CEO of Forrester, has given Chromebook his personal attention and he is not convinced. He’s looked for the business agenda at Google as well as the technology: they gain leverage (advertising) from increasing use of online services. Processing power gets more powerful and cheaper faster than networks, so the Chromebook’s 8-second bootup time and fast response may be less of an advantage than Google aver. And, of course, no senior executive is going to do symposium demonstrations with large files so the demos, as you can see from the video, were indeed impressively fast.

No take (blog or mainstream) from Gartner. There’s an interesting broader comment from Andrew Frank about Google’s branding strategy, particularly with regard to Chrome. Otherwise, there seems to be remarkably little in the mainstream analyst community. In Tier 2, Red Monk comments particularly on the “Tablet as a Service” aspect of Google’s announcement: the idea that users will lease a Chromebook, getting a new one every three years just like a leased car. This went along with the push that, unlike most personal machines, a Chromebook won’t deteriorate over time. No locally stored stuff, so no hard disk fragmentation, crashes or issues. No software clashes. No malware protection, to slow things down. Just continual updates as Google improves the ChromeOS experience, so in fact (so the pitch went) this computer actually gets better, not worse, over time.

The lease option is also picked up in another short Forrester blog, for sourcing professionals: this cautions potential leasers to consider the possible unstated negatives (and positives), such as support costs in the enterprise, and inability to run the existing software portfolio – against which, in the long run, the downloadable app model might work out cheaper. Might. One feature, though, which will attract: the online model (nothing on the local device) clearly will ease enterprise management.

So the most authoritative comment so far is Forrester’s. Forrester believes in a synergy between web services and powerful local processing, and George Colony is sceptical about the Chromebook’s ability to steal mindshare from the iPad.

Time will tell.

• Google Chrome: Day 2 Keynote from Google I/O, Google I/O, 11 May 2011: video replay, for Chromebook pick up at around 38 minutes
• While IT pros scoff, Google Chromebooks will likely seduce businesses, Jason Hiner, Tech Republic, 12 May 2011
• Google Chromebook: Business Model By Ideology, Counterintuitive CEO (George Colony), 16 May 2011
• The Embattled Google Brand, Andrew Frank, Gartner blog, 13 May 2011
• Chromebook/Notebook/Tablet As A Service. On Google Competing With IBM Global Finance, James Governor, Red Monk, undated but probably 13 May 2011
• Do $28/Month Laptops Really Exist?, Clarence Villanueva, Forrester blog, 13 May 2011

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