Google Targets Microsoft's Enterprise Turf with Chromebooks
Google took another step toward the enterprise this week when executives unveiled the "Chromebook," a notebook PC that could boost both its new operating system and cloud apps.
The Chromebooks are a vehicle for Google's Chrome OS, pushing out the operating system not only into the consumer market, but also into the prized enterprise market. For some time, Google has been focused on making its mark in the enterprise with products ranging from its cloud-based office applications to its Chrome browser and Android mobile platform.
(See Related: Hands On With the Samsung Chromebook Series 5)
"They aren't going to make a lot of money in the short term on either the OS or the devices, but they're playing a longer-term game here," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "What it does is give people an inexpensive Net-enabled device that is tailor-made for Google's personal productivity and other applications."
Google can only benefit by continuing to move users' computing experience toward the Web, said Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner. "Chromebook is intended to be a better netbook -- Web-optimized, lightweight, secure and easier to administer," he added. "It won't compete directly against conventional laptops and tablets, although certain segments of the market will overlap in all three categories."
Olds described the Chromebook as a "tweener" device, sitting between a smartphone and netbook and a full-fledged laptop.
Consumers will be able to order the first Chromebooks, which will come from Samsung and Acer, on June 15 from Amazon.com and Best Buy.
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president for Chrome, said at the conference Wednesday that Google will also sell Chromebooks on a subscription basis to businesses, starting at $28 per user. The company also will sell them to schools and government organizations, for $20 per user.
Olds noted that trying to push out a new operating system is generally a tough sell because software developers don't want to write apps for an operating system until there are a lot of devices running it, nor do customers want to buy a device that doesn't have a lot of cool apps to go with it.
Google already has its own cloud-based apps that can take advantage of the OS and the device.
"Chrome may be able to sidestep this issue because the Web is really its major app," said Olds. "In a lot of ways, it's just a browser on steroids running on a device that's optimized for it."
Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group, said he's intrigued by the idea of a purely Web-based computer and said the enterprise might be too.
"First, it's much more secure," Kerravala said. "All the content and apps live in the cloud, so if a device is lost or stolen, there's no risk. And it's great for road warriors because it's instant-on and doesn't have the usual issues of having to update patches. It's all automatic."
Olds added that the Chromebook isn't a powerful machine, but it doesn't need to be. Samsung will sell a Wi-Fi-only model for $429 that has an Intel Atom dual-core processor, 12.1-in. display, two USB ports, a 4-in-1 memory card slot, and a full-size keyboard and trackpad. The Acer machine will have an 11.6-in., LED-backlit LCD display, an Intel Atom dual-core processor, a high-definition webcam, two USB ports, a 4-in-1 in memory card slot, an HDMI port and a full-size keyboard and trackpad. It will sell for $349.
"The market they're aiming at is someone who needs Web connectivity above all -- for email, IM and Web applications," Olds said. "I can see it being used by people who need or want a bigger screen, who are in locations where they're always connected to the Net, but don't need a full slate of software resident on the machine."
However, Olds noted that Google will have its hands full supporting two different operating systems -- Chrome and the Android mobile OS.
"While Chrome and Android both share common Linux roots, they're still somewhat different in terms of the hardware they run on and their respective architectures," he explained. "It's a challenge to fully support even one OS stream, much less two. It's going to be interesting to see how well Google handles this."
Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said another issue is whether the market wants or will accept a new OS and another device. While the market may not have been clamoring for them, that doesn't mean it won't be open to them.
"With the right marketing and focus, as Apple demonstrated with the iPad and Microsoft with Windows 7 , the market can be made ready for something new and different," Enderle said. "The issue for Google is they generally suck at marketing, and that is why most of their tablets aren't selling at the moment. If they don't fix this, it is likely the Chrome OS will stall as well."
Despite the challenges, Kerravala said Google is making a smart move. "This is all based on the fact that we're living in the cloud now," he said. "And we are, so why not create a device that's optimized for that?"
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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