Chromebooks for business? Vendors say yes, but barriers remain

In the consumer space, Chromebooks have been generating a great deal of hype, although that hype has translated into minimal sales as yet. PC vendors say they’re also taking Chromebooks into the business market, but it’s early days and several obvious barriers to commercial adoption remain.

The Chromebook is a low-cost laptop running Google’s Chrome OS as its operating system, instead of Microsoft Windows. This allows for significant cost savings, due to not needing to buy a Windows licence, as well as Chrome OS running smoothly on less powerful hardware. On the flip side, you’re limited to running cloud and browser-based apps, and without connectivity the Chromebook’s utility is limited. In use-case, it’s similar to the netbooks that were a brief market hit a few years ago.

That hasn’t stopped vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Acer and Samsung from embracing the Chromebook though, and bringing several models to the market, primarily as a consumer play. HP has a number of consumer models and Phil Smith, category business manager for commercial notebooks at HP Canada, said HP recently released the Chromebook 11 Pro, its first model designed for the business channel and business market.

“We’re definitely interested in growing that portion of the business,” said Smith. “There’s definitely interest from customers and partners, primarily driven by the demand for more cutting edge form factors in the sub-$300 price band.”

The Chromebook 11 Pro is priced at $279.00, and is powered by a 1.7 GHz Samsung Exynos 5250 processor with 2GB RAM. It has 16GB of internal storage, an integrated VGA webcam and an 11.6” display.

Different verticals will be more interested than others, said Smith, but one already showing interest in Chromebooks is the education market. Schools see it as cost effective, easy to deploy and manage, and an ideal form factor for students with its light weight and 11.6” screen making it easy for students even in elementary school to carry around. Other likely verticals could be small businesses and startups that  already heavily leverage Google Docs and other cloud-based apps.

“Over five million people are already using Google Apps for business today,” said Smith.

Smith also points to the Google Chrome management console, which he said makes it easy for administrators to deploy and manage apps across their Chromebooks, as well as manage the devices themselves.

While he can’t discuss HP’s future roadmap, Smith indicated there will be follow-on models for the commercial space and hinted a 14” commercial Chromebook may be next.

“It’s a relatively new market, and HP is still working on the product roadmap,” said Smith. “I think there’s more to come.”

Chromebooks are being touted as fast, easy to use, cheap and low maintenance, and the fact they’re also secure makes them a good fit for the commercial space said Paul Tayar, senior product manager with Acer America.

Tayar said he expects Chromebooks will first make their way into the commercial space the same way tablets and smartphones did; through the “bring your own device” trend. But he also sees them having a place in the commercial market on their own.

“The simplicity aspect, and the always fresh image with TPM built into the product refreshing both apps and data, make Chromebooks compelling for SMBs and the enterprise,” said Tayar.

Acer also sees the education vertical as an early adopter of Chromebooks in the commercial space, pointing to how much easier they are for administrators to manage than Windows-based machines. He does acknowledge short-term challenges though around the availability of the apps and software that many businesses need. With many businesses moving their business-critical apps to the cloud though, he said that is changing.

“A lot of people are migrating to the cloud space, and that has a lot of benefit when it comes to Chrome,” said Tayar.

Acer has released its own Chromebook SKUs for the commercial space, giving users the option of more powerful hardware than is standard than in the consumer space. Options include 16GB or 32GB of SSD storage, 2GB or 4GB of RAM, and extended battery capacity, as well as bevy of port options and a two year warranty, rather than the one year that’s on the consumer models.

Are they selling though? It’s too early for IDC Canada to track sales of commercial Chromebook models and, while some consumer models may be finding their way to commercial users, even consumer Chromebook sales are still pretty small said Tim Brunt, program manager for personal computing and technology with IDC Canada. And returns can be high, as buyers get them home and find the device more limiting than they were expecting.

He, too though, does point to the education market, noting that in the spring, Samsung did a major Chromebook roll-out of about 5,000 devices to a school board in the Edmonton area. In one sense it’s a pretty good play for education, he said, because of the price differential. You can get five or six Chromebooks for the price of a decent laptop, or seven or eight for the price of a Mac.

“The value proposition is there for sure,” said Brunt. “The problem with a lot of this though is you have to be connected, and many schools just don’t have the infrastructure to support Wi-Fi throughout the entire school. It can become a mess really quickly. I know schools where you’ve got one Linksys router and that’s the Wi-Fi for the entire school. Then you’ve got lead paint on the walls, lead pipes in the walls…”

While you can do a lot of stuff in the cloud, Brunt notes you still need to be able to connect to the cloud to do it. And if you can’t reach the cloud, the cloud isn’t much use.  Connectivity is less of an issue for most SMBs, but he said it’s still a question of what you want to do with the device.

“The restrictions on the Chromebook are there; you can’t necessarily do a full-scale job,” said Brunt. “But if it’s someone that just needs light web surfing as part of their job – say a real estate agent – it’s a great opportunity to save on buying a laptop.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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