Chromed Out: What Google's Chrome OS means to CIOs

Patrick Gray lets the dust settle on the Google Chrome OS announcement and takes a practical look at what the OS might mean for CIOs.

After reading Google's announcement of its upcoming Chrome OS last month and the breathless commentary that followed in the IT press, one could be excused for being somewhat shocked not to find a "For Sale" sign in front of Microsoft or Apple's headquarters buildings. As with any trendy new technology, or announcement from an industry darling, it seems the pundits trip over themselves to make the most shocking predictions.

From claims that this will be a "nuclear bomb" for Microsoft, to predicting the demise of industry favorite Apple, Chrome OS' announcement was a fine example of the IT press at its worst: bombastic, overblown, and grandiloquent. Now that some of the smoke has cleared and it turns out that the planets are still spinning about the sun, and Windows and OS X have yet to disappear from the market, we can ask, "Does Chrome OS matter?"

Like most vaporware, we know relatively little about Chrome OS at this point. Google tells us that it will be based on Linux, and essentially be enough of an operating system to quickly load a Web browser and little else. It should "just work," and be lean and secure enough that that users are essentially unaware of the underlying OS and do all their work in a Web browser. All Chrome OS applications are Web applications, and by extension Gmail, Google's suite of productivity applications, and any other Web application that works with the current Chrome Web browser should work in Chrome OS.

Thin-client computing redux?

Call this observer crazy, but haven't we been talking about Web-based applications for a couple of decades, and thin clients for even longer? While Google's announcement attempts to put a veneer of newness on the concepts behind Chrome OS, the idea of using "lean" hardware to run applications from a central server is hardly groundbreaking, and has met with fairly minimal success in the past.

While at this point Chrome OS does not purport to be targeted at corporate users, one cannot help but assume Google will eventually target the OS in this direction, for no reason other than that corporate users have large wallets, and this is the model they have perused with their productivity suite. Since Chrome OS is essentially the 2010 version of thin client computing, if you currently have users who are always connected to the corporate network, and a suite of Web-based applications; essentially operating in a thin-client environment already, Chrome OS might be a winner for you.

Getting the backing of a large company like Google may be the push that thin-client computing, in its previous guises, may have missed, and the availability of commodity hardware (netbooks and other cheap PCs based on Intel's Atom technology) with a well-supported and maintenance-free OS may be the ticket you've been waiting for. Call centers, warehouses, and corporate kiosks may be perfect for Chrome.

The big questions Chrome OS fails to answer in the corporate environment are around disconnected use, security, and application maturity. Look at the number of notebooks in most companies, and it is clear that disconnected computing is a very valid usage scenario. I personally spend far more time than I would like on airplanes, and have come to value the "disconnected" time to weed through my inbox, write, or bang out a presentation. How Chrome OS will work when disconnected from a network connection is an open question.

The latter two problems are inter-related and already familiar. Most of Google's Web applications store their data "in the cloud," which presents its own set of security questions. Despite dire predictions about the quick defeat of Microsoft's ubiquitous Office application suite, Google Apps has yet to light the world on fire. While many suspect foul play on the part of Microsoft, for the most part, it is due to the simple fact that Office is a mature product, and frankly works pretty well, while Google Docs is still very much a distant competitor maturity-wise.

At the end of the day, if you have considered a "thin-client" type of computing scenario within your company, with all its pros and cons, Chrome OS may be the final piece of the puzzle. It purports to use the mature Linux kernel as its core, offers the backing of a tech giant, and should run all those Web applications you already have. If this model is not applicable to your company, at this point Chrome OS will do little more for corporate computing than clog up the IT airwaves with further speculation and bloviation for the foreseeable future.