- Tech & Gadgets
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Published 26 March 2013 12:21, Updated 26 March 2013 12:31
When the Google Chromebook launched in Australia last week it made headlines for all the right reasons – the price.
In Australia, Acer’s Chromebook sells for $299, and the more popular Samsung version for $349. It’s even less in the US – $199 and $249 respectively.
Of course, there is a pay-off for the low price – basically the hardware is useless without an internet connection. The machines run the Chrome operating system and the idea is for users to access web apps in the cloud rather than install local software.
But the low price makes computing accessible to more people and provides a compelling proposition for schools. For businesses that need to buy laptops on a large scale to equip the mobile workforce, it is a game changer.
Buying a few laptops for executives at around $1000 a pop is one thing. But try buying a fleet of thousands for front-line staff on the move. When the price shifts to $300, the mindset changes and the IT strategy can, too.
Chief information officer of US-based building company Egan Construction, Jim Nonn, issued Chromebooks to 140 foremen on the Minnesota light rail project about a year ago. In a post on the Google corporate blog, he describes how the low cost takes the fear factor out of the equation.
“The workers love the Chromebooks because they aren’t afraid to use them on the job,” Nonn says. “If one does get damaged, we can swap it for another in a matter of minutes with zero time wasted or data lost.
“We’ve saved so much in moving forward with Chromebooks instead of Windows laptops – about $200 per machine.”
The Chromebook does have competition at its price point. The cheapest laptop for sale on the Harvey Norman website at the time of writing was a Compaq Presario at $348. The cheapest tablet was the Android-based PendoPad 4.0 for $128.
There has been a lot of publicity about companies equipping staff with tablets – though it is more commonly higher end products such as Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Note that cost up to twice as much as a Chromebook.
Chrome OS product manager Caesar Sengupta says tablets tend to be used for different purposes than laptops. “If they can make do with a tablet, they’ll use a tablet, but in many cases they can’t do without a keyboard,” he says.
Egan’s Nonn considered laptops running Microsoft Windows as an option but was keen to avoid it if possible, because he didn’t want a “fleet of expensive, quickly outdated and slow” laptops that constantly break or need replacing.
“I’ve heard stories from other construction firms that Monday mornings were like the movie Groundhog Day, with the IT team tackling the same four-foot-high stack of malware-infected laptops over and over while work ground to a halt.”
Egan already used Google Apps to run its operations in the field so the Chromebook seemed like a good fit. Nonn says the installation was so simple that the intern managed the whole thing and he didn’t have to hire additional staff.
Florida-based trucking company Quality Distribution (QDI) is another company equipping a blue-collar workforce with Chromebooks.
The company moved from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps in 2011 and soon afterwards, the hardware started to slow down and break due to age. After surveying the options, QDI deployed 500 Chromebooks across 125 locations in the last year, including to truck drivers. The company expects to save $500,000 in hardware costs alone over five years.
Chromebooks have been available in the US for about 18 months but have only just reached Australia. While consumers can buy Chromebooks in Harvey Norman and JB HiFi stores, the Google Apps sales team will be working on corporate sales.
Sengupta says the machines are ideal for businesses but the company made a strategic decision to concentrate on the consumer market first.
“It’s starting to penetrate into businesses but businesses have a longer lead time so we’re seeing more businesses trying it and seeing how it works. It will be a matter of time before it starts spreading,” Sengupta says.
“We’ve also pushed a lot more in the consumer and schools sector. There’s a huge wave of consumerisation of information technology in businesses so if you’re able to win in the consumer space, particularly with the younger population, then it’s something that businesses will adopt automatically.”
The Chromebook has been a hit with consumers. The Samsung model has been top of Amazon’s bestseller list for laptops since it launched in the US and Chromebooks generally represent more than 10 per cent of notebook sales at Currys PC World, the largest electronics retailer in the UK.
Yet Sengupta says Chromebooks have features for enterprise customers, such as remote management.
Mollen Immunization Clinics, which provides flu shots through mobile kiosks inside Walmart stores, is one such customer in the US. Mollen rolled out 4500 Chromebooks with 3G connectivity to support employees in the mobile clinics.
“They have 5000 remote locations and it’s a nightmare for them to manage,” Sengupta says. “Mollen has bought a lot of Chromebooks and given them to their employees but the people who are managing these devices are typically not IT administrators, they’re lab technicians and doctors.
“For enterprise we also build in remote management and that means from one single web page you can manage your fleet of Chromebooks. You can manage nearly everything about it, including what apps are installed, what sites people can go to or not go to. You can even install not just applications online but secure Wi-Fi or VPN and push those settings remotely.”
As well as price and remote management, the advantages of a Chromebook for business includes the fact that the operating system is automatically updated with new features and security updates every six weeks so the experience improves rather than worsens over time.
Each Chromebook comes with a certain amount of web storage in Google Drive to supplement the machine’s local hard drive. Users can log into Chrome to keep their settings and access to files stored in the cloud, but they can also use guest mode or open an “incognito” browser window for privacy.
Sengupta says the main disadvantage of a Chromebook is that users miss out on conventional applications. For example, if they were using Windows-based accounting software, they would have to find an alternative in the cloud. However, he says there are now so many web-based applications, this is no great hardship for most businesses.
“We started developing Chrome OS about four years ago because we were observing people living within the Chrome browser most of the time and using web-based products like email. We call it cloud computing and we wanted to design an experience that was optimised for users in this environment. Users should not have to think about the computer.”
Another disadvantage is that the machines don’t work without web connectivity and that is far from ubiquitous, especially in Australia. Sengupta says the 3G/4G models correct this, allowing users to tether their phones or insert a SIM card directly into the Chromebook. Between Wi-Fi and 3G, he believes that connectivity is not an issue and notes that 3G tends to be more reliable outside the US.
However, Google is only launching the Wi-Fi-only Chromebook in the Australian market at this stage. A spokesman says Google Australia is still discussing support for 3G models with local mobile carriers.
The factors that make Chromebooks easy to use and easy to manage can also be seen as a disadvantage. There is not much ability to customise and turning the hardware into an internet portal arguably means the end of general computing.
Sengupta says Chromebooks are a core strategic move for Google because it uncouples computing from the hard drive and encourages people to use web apps and cloud storage, such as Google Apps and Google Drive.
“We are a web services company. Our bread and butter is people using our products like search, Gmail, YouTube, Google+and Docs, so the easier it is for people to use these products, the more they will use them. From this point of view, the Chromebook is extremely strategic for us.”
Sengupta says Google worked closely with manufacturers – Samsung, Acer and more recently HP and Lenovo in the US market – to optimise the hardware and encouraged their partners to make prices as low as possible. However, he says the pricing discrepancy between Australia and the US is a matter for the manufacturers. “The best people to ask about the price are Samsung and Acer – we’d love for it to be lower,” Sengupta says.“We try to encourage manufacturers to make prices as low as possible but a lot of different things go into the price and in some markets taxes are not quoted in the price.”