Overcoming legacy thinking: Chromebooks in a Windows work world

The biggest barrier to Chromebooks adoption might be legacy thinking, not legacy systems.

To any smart businessperson, a Samsung Chromebook at $249 is an appealing alternative to a Dell E6430 Latitude costing $750 or more. It costs one-third the price. What's not to like?

Yet I struggle when I'm asked "Can we buy a Chromebook instead of a laptop?"

It doesn't help that I'm usually sitting in a client's office taking notes on my Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook. The client sees my behavior and thinks "He's using it. So it will work for us."


The client doesn't see all the choices I've made that make the Chromebook work for me. I always have Internet access via "hotspot" sharing on my iPhone or iPad. My data is all stored in Google Apps, Google Drive and other online applications. I print using Google's Cloud Print, and I send scanned documents directly to Evernote online. A Chromebook works fantastically well for people that can work 100% in the cloud.

But many organizations and users aren't 100% in the cloud; some users still have data and/or applications only available on legacy systems. Chromebooks wouldn't be a good choice for those users.

In fact, deploying Chromebooks may increase complexity in organizations running a legacy Windows Server environment. The tech team has to figure out how to manage user authentication, enable access to data, and configure printing for yet another platform. (Insert all of your favorite cranky system administrator complaints about bring-your-own-device environments here.)

Organizations using Google Apps should test Chromebooks, since deploying Chromebooks and Google Apps together provides many benefits. In settings where Google Apps are used, the login issues are gone: users securely login to Google Apps. There's no need for antivirus software. Users can't install software. Google Docs files are always safely stored online. Data is stored online, not on the device, which is a huge security improvement compared to traditional laptops.

But the biggest barrier to Chromebooks adoption might be legacy thinking, not legacy systems.

Legacy thinking

Many working professionals have built very strong mental models based on traditional file systems. Ask many professionals to create a document and they'll open Microsoft Word, create a document, then save the file. Ask the same person to share a document. They'll open Outlook, write an email, then send the file as an attachment. Their mental model of work is file centric: create a file, send an attachment.

Chromebooks - and Google Apps - are built with an underlying mental model that is access centric, not file centric. You can create and edit documents from anywhere, as long as you can access your Google Apps account. You share these documents by giving access to others. Google Apps enables people to collaborate on documents in ways that even the most recent versions of Office365 and iWorks simply don't. Google Apps and Chromebooks enable multiple users to edit shared documents simultaneously, in real time.

That's the mental model change that's needed: share access, not files. This can be difficult to understand for people who grew up saving and organizing traditional files and folders.

For example, I recently worked with a group of professionals that had adopted Google Apps for email, calendaring, and Google Drive for file storage. They wanted to collaborate on documents. I learned they'd been uploading Microsoft Word documents to Google Drive, and then sharing the native-format Word file with their colleagues. People would download a copy of the file, make edits, then store the new file back to Google Drive. They were treating Google Drive just like they had their legacy file server: it was a storage place, nothing more. We spent a fun morning together walking through the mechanics of collaborative editing and sharing in Google Docs.

Bottom line

So if you're considering a purchase of Chromebooks, don't just look at people (like me!) who happily use a Chromebook and Google Apps. Look at your organization's users - and their mental models of work and workflow. Because moving everything to the web really can change how and where you work. But first, you might need to change how you think about files and collaboration.

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Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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