Google's Chrome operating system (OS) – due to launch on Acer and Samsung "Chromebooks" next month – could be a real game-changer in terms of how consumers and businesses interact with their operating systems.
And Microsoft executives will be watching Google's progress in this area as Chrome OS represents a very real threat to Windows' dominance.
The Chrome operating system is a web application, meaning file management updates and security software are all managed in the cloud, and other issues common to traditional PCs such as backup maintenance will no longer be the user's responsibility.
"The PC operating system model is broken," declared Rajen Sheth, group product manager, Chrome for Business at Google, on a conference call late last week.
He claimed that Chrome OS will free up the user's time to focus on more important things than the maintenance of their PCs.
In addition, Google's decision to lease Chromebooks as part of a pay-monthly service, offering a cloud management console to remotely administer and manage users, devices, applications and policies and include enterprise-level support, device warranties and replacements, as well as regular hardware refreshes, relieves most operating system headaches for CIOs.
The company has said it will be putting out updates to the operating system every six weeks – not just to patch it against security flaws, but to implement incremental improvements, marking a move away from the traditional operating system refresh model, which sees a full migration every three or four years.
According to David McLeman, managing director at Ancoris, a Google Apps for Business reseller, the new operating system will "change desktop estates forever".
"Google Chromebook marks the end of the typical desktop refresh cycle that most organisations have. Microsoft OS upgrades have typically driven the desktop refresh cycle and Microsoft's monopoly in this area will now begin to wane," he said.
He, like Google, argues that, not only does management of the operating system become easier as a result, but also much cheaper – the average cost of ownership of a desktop computer system over a three-year period is £1,658 according to figures from research firms IDC and NPD, but using Google Chrome OS, this figure is expected to fall dramatically.
"Before Chrome OS, an organisation with 100 employees may have spent £165,800 over a three-year period purchasing and maintaining desktop PCs. Google's announcement of the Chromebook at a cost of $28 per user per month for a device requiring no capital expenditure, no additional OS licensing costs, no patching and without an expensive three year refresh and OS upgrade including hardware replacements and upgrades, suggests a saving of at least 50 per cent over the traditional Windows desktop," McLeman argued.
However, there are still questions around whether such an operating system, which is reliant on constant internet connectivity to function to its full potential, can really be depended on by businesses.
"The browser-oriented Chrome OS represents the clearest test to date of whether or not the cloud can deliver a majority of end user needs for content and services," said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum.
Google claims it can – Sheth says the firm recognises customer concerns about not always having a connection to the internet, but claims that the reality is that most people are connected for large periods of time.
"Five years ago, the way people used email at home was by using POPmail client, which meant that all emails had to be downloaded to their PCs. Now, around 99 per cent of people use webmail for their own personal email – and this shows a clear move to cloud. People are realising that the benefits of being able to use that webmail service from any computer, anywhere, at any time, far outweigh the drawbacks."
One notable feature of Chrome OS is that Google has partnered with Citrix and VMware to address the issue of accessing legacy applications. With the inclusion of Citrix Receiver, business users can be freed from the constraints of a Windows PC and access their non-web applications.
Using Citrix Receiver, desktop applications that are stored locally can be used with Chrome. In addition, Google says the OS can run any web applications available on the internet, and even has its own web store for the operating system, with a "productivity section" containing business apps.
"There is literally nothing that you can't run for businesses on Chrome OS," said Caesar Sengupta, product management director at Google.
However, it is not yet known how resilient the operating system is or how far it will be a target for hackers looking to exploit vulnerabilities – the product will need to have been tested by the market before these issues can be addressed.
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