Will Chromebooks rule the enterprise? (5 reasons they may)

Google schooled Apple and Microsoft in the education market by growing market share from zero to 60 in eight years. Insider Pro columnist Mike Elgan examines whether Google can do it again in the enterprise.

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Chromebooks in the enterprise got real last month. Dell shipped new devices with double the RAM and storage of previous "enterprise" Chromebooks. Now we have Chromebooks that rival Windows machines in hardware performance.

The only thing stopping Chromebooks now is a bad reputation.

The Dell news is a good start

Google and Dell partnered on two new enterprise-class Chromebooks. One of Dell's new Chromebooks is a 14-inch Latitude 5400, which starts at $699. The other is a 13-inch Latitude 5300 2-in-1 that starts at $819. You can get either with Intel’s 8th Gen Core i7 processors, up to 32GB of RAM and up to 1TB of SSD storage and you can add LTE to either. They both ship with Chrome Enterprise.

New hardware announcements always emphasize the lowest possible price while dangling the highest possible specs. In truth, the Latitude 5400 with all the trimmings is closer to $2,100. That's the one I want.

The reporting on the announcement also buried the lead. Yes, these systems have options for double the RAM and storage that previous enterprise Chromebooks offered. But high-end Chromebooks like this will soon be widely available from all the usual suspects. Within a year, I predict, multiple companies will ship Chromebooks with 32 MB of RAM and at least a terabyte of storage. Dell's announcement shouldn't be the main story.

The big news is that Google and Dell announced cloud-based admin tools the companies developed for managing Chromebooks within an enterprise. The Chromebooks will be manageable via familiar tools like VMware Workspace One, easier than before. In other words, Google is generally working hard on making enterprises more centrally manageable and deployable. And that's going to change everything.

Meanwhile, the new Dell laptops will be greeted with the same reaction as Google's Pixelbook: Two thousand dollars for a Chromebook? Are you nuts?

Why Chromebook's bad reputation is obsolete

In the first few years, the main benefit of Chromebooks was that they were cheap and dispensable. Smash your cheap Chromebook on the pavement? No problem. Just grab another one, log into your Google account, and there's all your stuff.

That sales proposition doesn't persuade. Cheap is nice. But the platform's myriad initial shortcomings put off enterprise buyers. Chromebooks got a bad reputation. And they've still got it. Even today, many enterprise buyers believe these obsolete myths about Chromebook:

Chromebooks are underpowered junk devices that offer only the functionality of a Chrome browser on Windows, minus everything else Windows offers. They can hardly do anything. You can run only the Chrome browser, which is bloated and slow. Chromebooks are doorstops without an internet connection. And you can't really support them in an enterprise environment.

What's actually true is that the best Chromebooks today, including Google's own Pixelbook and the new Dell systems, as well as others, are well-made, often elegant devices. Because Chrome OS is such a "light" system compared with Windows, a Chromebook with a so-so processor and 8 MB of RAM is a blistering fast internet machine.

The late former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously described PCs as trucks and tablets as cars, saying that for most people a car is a better fit for their lifestyle. Extending Jobs' metaphor to the Dell's new Chromebooks: They're cars... with truck engines. This class of Chromebook is going to win all the drag races.

While Chrome on Windows or Mac OS running a few extensions and tabs will slow performance to a crawl, a high-end Chromebook remains snappy with 30 extensions running and 50 tabs open.

The idea that Chromebooks are useless offline is another false notion. For example, all the Google stuff works offline, such as Gmail, Docs, Keep and so on. Pictures and videos and other files can be stored locally and edited offline. And you can save web sites for offline viewing. The question to ask yourself isn't "what can Chromebooks do offline?" The question is: "What can a Windows or Mac OS machine do offline that a Chromebook can't." The answer is: precious little.

Over the eight years of its existence, the Chromebook went from being the platform that does the least to the platform that does the most. In addition to running a huge number of Chrome Extensions and Apps at once, Chromebooks also run Android, Linux and Windows apps.

Android App support is great and getting better all the time, and at this point just about any Android app that doesn't require the phone system will run beautifully on a high-end Chromebook. Linux support is good and getting better. But Windows support is still very immature. It basically requires virtual machine apps and some fiddling. These apps will run side-by side, not in some kind of dual boot mode.

From zero to 60 in eight years

The platform success story of the decade is the stunning takeover of the education market by Google. Back in the day, Apple's market share in education seemed unshakable. Today, Google dominates the $43 billion U.S. education-tech market. In 2018, Chromebooks represented an incredible 60 percent of all laptop or tablet devices in K-12 -- up from zero percent when the first Chromebook launched during the summer break in 2011.

Can Chromebooks do it again in the enterprise? My prediction is: probably.

5 reasons Chromebooks might take over the enterprise like they did education

If you follow enterprise trends over the past eight years and project them into the next eight years, you can see why Chromebooks have a real shot at becoming the dominant client hardware platform in the enterprise.

Enterprise IT and security leaders have been faced with multiple growing problems that they still don't have solutions for. As these problems grow intolerable, Chromebooks may become irresistible.

1. Industrial espionage during foreign travel

Foreign governments, competitors and cyber criminals increasingly take advantage of business travelers while abroad.

Customs and airport security officials are now downloading the contents of phones and laptops as a matter of course.

Business meetings and conferences are seen as ripe opportunities to steal data and plant malware via wireless hacking methods, including through insecure Wi-Fi networks. Or just good old-fashioned hardware theft. Laptops go missing with alarming frequency. (I know one C-level executive who told me the airline lost his carry-on bag. Carry-on!)

Chromebooks present an easy solution. Just Powerwash (restore to factory settings with one click) before and after every business trip, and all these problems are solved.

In truth, Powerwash is almost overkill. Every time a Chromebook boots, it checks itself before it wrecks itself. This "verified boot" system checks to see if anything has been modified or corrupted for any reason and, if so, fixes itself.

Still, a Powerwash will take the extra steps of removing even the username from the log-in screen (in case authorities try to force a log-in) and also removing files from storage.

2. Social engineering malware

No amount of IT spending can solve the problem of human fallibility. People are people. And they're going to open that weird email attachment. They're going to insert that USB drive they found in the parking lot.

Chrome OS can't make humans infallible, but it can prevent malware from being installed. The reason is that Chrome OS is a stateless operating system, which means that the OS isn't modified when apps are installed and also that apps can't interfere with each other. (It also means the OS doesn't get slower and less stable over time.) There's just no place to install malware on a Chromebook.

And even if a user visits an infected webpage, the system is protected. On Chromebooks, every tab and every app runs in its own separate sandbox. If a user opens an infected webpage, the problem is isolated and contained. It can't infect other tabs where the user is logged into sensitive company resources.

3. The slow pace of development

Enterprise software can take forever to build and deploy. But needed functionality or service can be built as a Chrome extension, which means it can be (unlike Rome) built in a day. As a bonus, the extension will work across Chromebooks, Windows machines and MacBooks.

4. The challenge of agility

Everyone's always talking about agility, but it's actually hard to move in that direction. Chromebooks can at least offer agility on the client side. Consider Google's Grab-and-Go program, where people just grab a Chromebook off a rack, log in and use it before returning it to the rack at the end of the day. The program is an example of how fluid the movement of devices up and down and around the organization can be.

5. Staff shortages

When I talk to IT admins, security specialists and others in the industry, the universal constant is: not enough people, not enough money.

The cloud model in general and the Chromebook model in particular offer lower total cost of ownership (TCO), and this is especially true with the growing range of admin tools available. This doesn't come from the price of the device, but from greatly reduced help desk calls, lower development costs, lower investment in security solutions (for example, no anti-virus), greater sharing of client devices and less user downtime (if there's a problem. any user can just be handed another Chromebook and they can get right back to work).

In short, IT admins are plagued by the problem that everything gets more complicated over time, which requires more people and more money. Chromebooks offer a rare example of how at least clients can be simpler.

And that's why I think the story we're going to be reporting over the next few years is the stunning rise of Chromebook in the enterprise.

Google did it in education. And they might do it in the enterprise.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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