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What's holding back Chromebooks in the enterprise? Three things

Chromebooks are making headway in the enterprise, but they still have a few obstacles to overcome. We dig into the big three.

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Image: CNET

Chromebooks offer a variety of benefits for business and education users, especially a uniformity of computing experience that makes deployment quick and easy.

They also offer enterprise customers a way out of, what Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder calls, the "laptop maintenance business." If an employee's machine breaks, they simply have to sign into a new one to continue working.

Adam Seldow, executive director of technology for Chesterfield County Public Schools, said that his school system's recent rollout of 32,000 Chromebooks has saved time and money.

"What the Chromebook offers us is a cost effective way to create and consume content with more of our time going into our core business of education, and less of our time going into the nuts-and-bolts of computer preparation, imaging, and maintenance," Seldow said.

However, many would-be business customers have voiced concerns over the cloud-centric laptops. Initial concerns were raised about offline productivity and security, but Google is beginning to address these concerns by offering offline app capabilities and working on enhancing security features. While these are steps in the right direction, Chromebooks still face a few hurdles with the enterprise audience.

Here are some of the remaining hurdles that are keeping Chromebooks from a broader penetration into the enterprise market.

1. Mail clients

For many companies, the transition to a Chrome OS ecosystem begins with Gmail. While that may sound obvious, many schools and companies have created an email environment that is dependent on Microsoft Exchange servers. There are options for using Exchange with a web browser, but it often leads to a poor user experience

"If your application environment is not using Gmail, it's a tough sell," Gownder said. "Gmail is really a likely prerequisite for most organizations, because the level of integration and performance is going to be superior to using Exchange over the web."

Corporate Gmail is growing and thriving, but it still only comprises a small percentage of users. In 2012, at its annual I/O conference, Google did report that five million businesses were using Google Apps, but it is unclear what measurements were used to describe an entity as a business. There are a number of top universities and Fortune 500 companies using Google Apps, but the five million number could be misleading as it could refer to single-person companies or firms with no payroll.

2. Legacy apps

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Chromebook adoption is the lack of support for legacy Windows and Mac apps. According to Gartner's Mikako Kitagawa, the problem is the fact that many companies have built their infrastructure to rely on these applications.

"For now, most enterprises have built IT infrastructure for client computing which is based on Windows and, very few cases, Mac OS," Kitagawa said. "Chromebooks cannot handle applications that enterprises run, unless these apps are in the virtual environment."

For Kitagawa, this is the main detriment to enterprise Chromebook adoption. However, Google has taken steps to address this by bolstering their virtualization options, even teaming up with VMWare, although it isn't yet a broad enough offering to entice some businesses.

"Yes, you can do some virtualization, but that's not always going to be a great solution for business critical applications," Gownder said. "In a situation where client applications are central to business processes, and they can't be easily moved to the web, that's going to be another inhibitor."

In their current state, Chromebooks will remain a segmented purchase and deployment; businesses will not be supplying these to all of their workers. This is especially true for financial applications, as many legacy financial tools do not offer a browser-based version. Gownder challenged people to try doing pivot tables on a web browser; it probably won't be a good experience.

3. Company structure

The overarching barrier to Chromebook success in the enterprise is the fact that most enterprises are not built to facilitate the use of Chromebooks.

"I suppose that there are some businesses that have very specific computing requirements exclusive of what a Chromebook offers. Any company that relies heavily upon Java-based tools or applications designed to run in a Window or Mac-only environment will not work natively on the Chromebook," Seldow said.

Seldow did follow up by mentioning the virtualization options that are available, but those are not a good fit for every enterprise. No matter what is added to, or taken away from Chrome, it will still take some work on the part of the enterprise environment to make Chromebooks work.

"It's not necessarily something that you need to add to Chrome, as much as it is that companies would have to start re-architecting the way that they do computing to be much more cloud oriented," Gownder said.

Enterprise customers will have to change the way they think about cloud delivery and deployment of applications. Chrome probably will not start running Windows applications anytime soon; so, you need an overhaul of the enterprise system, which will take time.

International enterprises also need to consider the effects of partnering with a company as polarizing as Google. In the US, the name Google typically doesn't elicit a harmful response, but that isn't the case for all countries.

"If you have a big presence in a place like China, if you're very global, China doesn't necessarily play well with the Google ecosystem," Gownder said. "I talk to companies that say, 'Look Gmail and Chromebooks are simply not efficacious if you have a big Chinese presence.'"

Despite these challenges, Chromebooks are still a good option for many business customers. If Google can continue to improve the product and iterate based on these points, it has the potential to make the Chromebook a real contender among business laptops.

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About

Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.

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