Chromebooks have a 1% market share -- and a tough road to the enterprise

The key to their long-term success may in the classroom

About 2.5 million Chromebooks were sold globally in 2013, or about 1% of the entire PC market, according to market research firm IDC. But most of those sales were driven by consumers, not by enterprise users.

The Chromebook, introduced in 2011, is still an outlier for most businesses, even as it becomes an alternative for consumers and schools. By 2017, IDC expects the Chromebook to reach about 6 million shipments, or more than 2% of the PC market.

But how much progress has the Chromebook made into the enterprise? "Beyond education, it's probably virtually zero," said IDC analyst Loren Loverde.

There were 314.6 million PCs shipped in 2013.

Despite this outlook, there are ample anecdotal examples of Chromebook adopters, particularly among small and mid-size firms that do most of their work in the cloud and through SaaS services.

Although the Chromebook has attracted fervent users, there are many reasons why it will have trouble in enterprises. One is Microsoft Office, which has over 90% of the productivity market, according to IDC. Another: Enterprises with an installed base of potentially hundreds of Windows applications would find such a move daunting.

Christopher Anderson, an IT director at a mid-sized firm he asked not be named, uses Google's Chromebook Pixel notebook and sees much potential in Chrome OS. His company has deployed Chromeboxes to run its 45 in-store kiosks, and he can foresee a time when 90% of his users are on Chromebooks.

Anderson isn't yet eager to deploy the laptops broadly, because he knows he will face resistance from Office users. Other than the cultural issues, there aren't any real barriers; most of the firm's work is now done in the cloud.

With that in mind, Anderson thinks a shift to Chromebooks will happen -- eventually. He pointed to his experience in terms of cost, security and manageability of the platform as the reason for this eventual shift.

That kind of shift is less likely at other companies. Chromebooks are essentially mobile thin clients, "and mobile thin clients in the enterprise have never done well," said Bob O'Donnell, the chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research.

O'Donnell said an enterprise may make some of its Windows apps available for a mobile device, but many won't be adapted. "People are still essentially looking at running traditional PCs in traditional business environments for quite some time," he said.

A business could use RDS (Remote Desktop Services) and Citrix XenApp with a Chromebook, "but we don't see many organizations doing that yet," said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner.

Google, however, may be plotting a long strategy for Chromebook adoption. Evidence of that is in the education market.

Michael Jaber, the instructional technology coordinator at the Sheboygan Area School District, in Wisconsin, is deploying 2,800 Chromebooks at the high school. He was previously in the nearby Fond du Lac school system, where he was part of the team that deployed 2,400 Chromebooks at that system's high school.

The Fond du Lac deployment was made soon after Chromebooks were released. Previously, tablets were the hot items for deployment. But Jaber said tablets were still seen as more of a consumption device, and school officials wanted "a creation station." For that, a keyboard was needed, he said.

There were other incentives: Google Apps for Education, and its collaboration tools, are free. And headache avoidance is always a boon. The IT department didn't want complicated licensing and management issues, such as version control. The single sign-on was simple for students, said Jaber.

The big issues involved building out an infrastructure and network to support the devices, and preparing teachers to integrate the Chromebooks in their classrooms to help transform education, said Jaber.

Although the hardware is getting more resistant to breakage as the devices mature, Jaber said the school district is acquiring the Chromebooks on a two-year lease. Because technology is changing rapidly, that helps keep students up-to-date.

If students have a good experience with a Chromebook in school, they're more likely to be open to using them in college and eventually in the business world. Jaber is already seeing that trend among recent grads. "They are almost being evangelists for how Google has changed their learning," he said.

Another Chromebook user is Louis Gouletas, the CIO and CMO of National Rental Services, a Chicago-based property management firm, which was created four years ago after acquiring another property management firm. It took on some aging IT equipment, and operations that were run in-house.

"I wanted to be as flexible as possible, and to me that was the cloud," said Gouletas.

Gouletas put in a high-speed network and are using wireless broadband provider Clearwire as a back-up, with automatic switch-over if their network connection goes out. Workewrs are standardized on Chromebox and Chromebooks and use Google apps and SaaS providers for property management tools.

This approach is not completely IT maintenance free. Gouletas said he has had to use third-party tools to enable data sharing between some SaaS systems, and has also written his own scripts.

Most of the 12-member staff are using either Chromebooks or Chromebox or both, but two users are still using PCs. But those two systems have been configured so that Google Drive acts as their hard drive.

When Gouletas decided on an IT path, Microsoft's cloud offerings such as Office 365 were still a work in progress. "Microsoft wasn't where they were today, and I think we would have considered them harder," he said.

But the overall goals-- to reduce IT management issues and cut costs -- were largely achieved.

"The less I spend on tech while maintaining or increasing capability, the more I can spend on marketing and the more the company grows," said Gouletas.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Chromebooks have a 1% market share -- and a tough road to the enterprise" was originally published by Computerworld.

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