What Chrome OS means for business

Google Inc. held a press event Thursday to announce details of its upcoming Chrome OS. What it unveiled is an exciting new platform for Web computing that is aimed squarely at consumer netbooks, and has little relevance to businesses today.
In a nutshell, Chrome OS consists of a Chrome browser running on an optimized Linux kernel. It supports only solid-state storage, and with the exception of locally cached user data, all data will be stored in the cloud. It’s built to be fast, simple, and secure. It eliminates all local apps (except, of course, for the browser).
Let’s be perfectly clear: If it’s not a Web app, it won’t run on Chrome OS. While it doesn’t accommodate local storage, it will read from USB storage devices (memory sticks, cameras, etc). It’s a promising idea, as long as you buy into the whole Google ecosystem hook, line, and sinker.
Why Chrome won’t run your office PCs in the near future

Initially, Chrome OS will only be available on netbooks, but were that not the case, there are still plenty of other reasons this OS isn’t ready for most business use cases. The big one is that it’s restricted to Web apps. That might be OK for e-mail, word-processing, spreadsheets, etc., but it simply won’t do for CAD, audio/video editing, software development, home grown apps, and third-party apps with no Web analog.

External devices are also a problem. Chrome will work with USB keyboards, mice, and storage devices, but what about multifunction printers and other more complex peripherals? While Google’s Sundar Pichai did say that printer support will be included in the final OS, it’s unclear how supporting a wide array of printer drivers fits into Google’s vision of a streamlined OS with a limited reference spec. These unanswered questions make it hard to believe that your current desktop OS is going away anytime soon.

How Chrome could complement your business as a companion PC

If you can get away with using only Web apps while on the road, a Chrome OS equipped netbook will be worthy of consideration. It’s worth pointing out that Google’s definition of “netbook” deviates broadly from its origins. Google thinks of a netbook as a slim inexpensive portable computer having a full-sized keyboard and touchpad, decently sized screen, long battery life, and solid-state storage. As a companion PC, a Chrome equipped netbook is an IT person’s dream. Chrome OS keeps itself and all of its plug-ins up to date; you never need to worry about updating it.

When it boots, Chrome runs a checksum on all of its binaries. If something is off because of malware or corruption, your computer is automatically and transparently reimaged from the cloud. You can forget about resource hogging anti-malware apps. Also, locally cached data is encrypted. If your netbook were stolen, it would be very difficult for anyone to recover any personal data. When you replace your netbook, all of your settings and data are right there. In fact, your entire environment is replicated from the cloud on any Chrome netbook you log into.

The Possible Future

It’s not difficult to see how the Chrome OS could become wildly popular on netbooks. A growing number of companies, such as Genentech, Motorola, and Salesforce.com are already using Google Apps, and could see immediate benefits using the Chrome OS on a companion PC. For those who already work in Google’s Web apps, a Chrome OS-equipped netbook will be worthy of consideration. However, such companies appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule, since they’ve already bought into the ecosystem.

Once it has established a user base on netbooks, Google will likely starting pushing into larger laptops and desktops. If Web-based cloud computing becomes popular enough, we’ll see more developers of traditional desktop apps make a push for the Web. For legacy apps and those that don’t easily translate to the Web, we may see more implementations of Citrix and Terminal Server type applications. Still, it’s unlikely that Windows, OS X, and Traditional Linux computers will disappear.
However, Google promises that features in the Chrome OS will filter into the Chrome browser. Hopefully what this means is that if 95 percent of what we do is on the Web, that experience will be replicated on both the Chrome OS and the Chrome browser that runs on our desktops.

The Bottom Line

Who knows if the Chrome OS will be successful, or where all this will lead to, but Google sure paints a rosy picture and makes it easy to get all dreamy-eyed about the future of cloud computing. However, for most companies, the paradigm shift is too severe and too limiting to consider Chrome as a primary business platform.

Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.

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