Will Chromebooks reshape the world of business software?

11th September 2011

The increasingly ubiquitous and all-encompassing cloud has already changed the way we access and pay for all sorts of software and services, but it could now be on the cusp of an evolutionary leap forward. FSN writer Lesley Meall thinks that Chromebooks could kick-start an extinction event for the personal computer as we know it, and radically reshape the business software industry – and she’s not the only one.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, recently. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis sort of thing. But in addition to considering whether or not I should move house, try a change of career, or find a life partner that isn’t a Scottish terrier, I’ve been contemplating the future of information technology. Will it change as much during the next 30 years as it has during the past 30? What impact will this have on the world in which we live and work? How close to the singularity are we, and how exciting will this be, if and when it arrives? 

Thinking being the open-ended sort of activity it is, I could now wax lyrical on all of this (and more) at great length; but I won’t. Instead, I’ll share the one train of thought I have so far managed to follow to anything resembling a conclusion: at some point, we will end up with a world where we each have one mobile device for personal and professional communications and consumption, and we will use it to connect to each other, the cloud, and the many IT and telecommunications services this will provide access to. 

We may be travelling towards this destination down a variety of different roads, via numerous different (predictable and unpredictable) waypoints, but there seems little doubt about where all of these will eventually lead. It’s an evolution thing, isn’t it? Adaptation, mutation, and the survival of the fittest seem to dictate it, don’t they? Only time will tell, of course, and whilst I love being right as much as the next person, I’ve had quite a lot of practice when it comes to being wrong, so the odds are not in my favour. 

But there are signs that this time, things could be different, and one of those things is the recent arrival of Chromebooks. These are ‘bare bones’ notebooks that have been built and optimised for access to the internet, and they won’t work unless you are connected to it. They use Google’s Chrome operating system to provide access to cloud-based software and services (via the Chrome browser), so no applications or applications data are stored on the device. 

They are reasonably lightweight (a couple of pounds), and except for their bare bones approach to software and storage, the current models (available from Acer and Samsung) bring everything else you probably want from a notebook. They’ve got a full-sized keyboard and sizeable display (11.6 inches on the Acer and 12.1 inches on the Samsung), regular SD card slots, USB ports for devices such as cameras (and storage), plus speakers, and headphone jacks – and as they boot up in a matter of seconds Skyping could be as easy as making a call on your mobile phone. 

They’re not the all-singing, all-dancing devices I’d like to get my sticky little mitts on at some point in the (hopefully not too) dim and distant future. They are not small enough, or light enough, and in my dreams I see something flatter and more flexible, that constantly recharges using solar power. (If you want to see where I’m coming from take a look here and here.) But Chromebooks look like a step in the right direction. So, when I recently spoke to the IDC analyst Dave Bradshaw, on an unrelated issue, I was gratified (and slightly relieved) to find that he also saw the ‘ultimate thin client’ as ‘the future of IT’ – particularly for organisations. 

‘A lot of businesses will move towards this sort of device, because the traditional desktop still costs too much to manage,’ he suggests; though it’s worth noting that Bradshaw doesn’t mean that businesses (and other ‘organisations’) will ultimately opt for one of the current Chromebooks, or any of its future incarnations. He’s talking about the more general move towards virtualisation, with thin client devices such as the Chromebook, providing remote access to applications and data, and being managed from a central point. 

‘Virtualised desktops are the way forward,’ says Bradshaw. But whilst the front-end of a virtualised desktop (or very, very, very, thin client) may eventually become the norm, how this is managed and maintained will vary. Some organisations may choose (or need) to opt for the ‘public’ services of a third party service provider (which may or may not be Google), whilst others will want these devices to link back into hybrid clouds or private clouds, where the organisation (or a third party provider) handles the management. 

The way Chromebooks are being delivered shows which way the wind is blowing. Consumers can buy them through retail channels; business users pay Google a monthly subscription, starting at US$28 or £15. ‘This may seem expensive,’ observes Bradshaw, ‘but take into account the full cost of a traditional laptop, including management and support.’ As well as automated software updates, the subscription covers a replacement Chromebook after three years (or before, if a Chromebook fails) – though Google is still perplexingly woolly on the warranty specifics.  

In addition to relieving user organisations of maintenance and updates, these virtualised desktops promise fewer security problems than traditional laptops. ‘Google claims that the security features build into the Chromebook make it far less vulnerable to malware,’ says Bradshaw, thanks to ‘sandboxing’ of each web page and application, a verified boot, and encryption that protects browsing history and other local data. But whilst Chromebooks may be a sign of things to come, what follows them, may be something a little less Google and a little more Microsoft. 

‘What worries me about Chromebooks is the lack of Outlook,’ says Bradshaw, ‘because it’s so dominant’. He believes that the productivity apps that most organisations will want to access from their virtualised desktops will be of the Microsoft variety. Chances are, that if this sort of virtualised mobile desktop device succeeds in changing the dominant computing model, there will be room for more than one set of ‘office-type’ productivity apps; and Google will not be the only organisation providing devices that can be used to access them. 

‘I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the emergence of service providers that offer virtual desktops tailored to meet the needs of certain types or size of business or profession,’ agrees Simon Crompton, executive director with the software provider CCH (in the same way as past generations of application software providers have created specialised suites). It is early days, but corporates are already building and hosting their own private clouds, and third party providers are creating and hosting ‘private clouds’ of virtualised desktops for all sorts of businesses – and once you’ve done one, why not scale-up and do more. 

If a managed service provider has already gone through the virtualisation process for one or two firms of architects, or accountants, or doctors, or solicitors, it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump away from creating something (very similar) that can be accessed by many more of their ilk, and operating it on a volume, multi-tenant basis. After all, businesses that specialise in each of these professional areas may come in lots of shapes and sizes, but they still require access to (or could benefit from) very similar mixtures of generic and specialised business software and systems. 

Taking this route won’t be a doddle for anybody but the end user, particularly in the short term, as it will create all sorts of software licensing and contracting challenges for third party providers and application software companies. But Crompton acknowledges that eventually, ‘it may be inevitable’. CCH in the US is already moving ‘very heavily’ towards ‘technology-agnostic browser-based’ delivery models, CCH in the UK recently bought Dutch SaaS provider Twinfield, and CCH recently added ‘pricing professionals’ to its employee roster, to consider some of the financial implications of these developments and trends. 

So, whilst it may be decades before we each have one (flexible) mobile device for personal and professional communications and consumption of cloud-based services, we are heading that way, and fast. ‘I think private clouds will become more like public clouds, and public clouds will become more like private clouds,’ suggests Bradshaw, because end users want more ‘comfort and support’ than public cloud providers currently offer, and private cloud providers will need to ‘evolve’ in order to survive. He adds: ‘Five years from now, things are going to look very, very, different.’