About 20 years ago, word started spreading around my office that our PCs were going to be replaced with “dumb terminals” and that we’d access the programs we needed — mainly word processing and spreadsheets — through our local area network. Our network manager loved the idea because he was more than tired of walking around, floppy disks in hand, installing software updates on 80 or more desktops at a time.
The rest of us, however, were rather skeptical, not only because we were worried about the speed with which apps would open and files would be saved, but also because our PCs were supposed to be “personal,” and this seemed like a regression to the boring old mainframe days just as the PC revolution was in full flower.
In the end, it didn’t happen, but here we are a generation later, at a moment when cloud-based technologies seem poised to sweep in and transform the workplace — this time for real. Last week’s announcements about Google’s Chromebook and the concept of using super-cheap hardware in concert with super-cheap subscriptions to online Google Apps makes you think. Is the workplace ready for the end of the standalone PC?
“With Microsoft, and other operating system vendors, I think the complexity of managing your computer is really torturing users. It’s torturing everyone in this room. It’s a flawed model fundamentally,” Google’s Sergey Brin has said. He may have a point, and businesses may see real value in an easy-to-maintain $350 laptop or a $28 per month per user subscription.
Unless, of course, the contract is too long, the laptops are underpowered, security issues scare you, the browser can’t be changed, and your employees don’t covet iPads. Naysayers abound, including Computerworld’s Mike Elgan, who wrote:
Brin’s sales pitch exists in a theoretical fantasy world where there is no distinction between personal and business computing. The idea that cloud-based computing is all about user happiness strains credulity. The whole purpose of cloud computing is to protect organizations from their users. Chromebooks take away user freedom and control. Yet Google is pitching the concept as an attraction to consumers.
Good point. Elgan goes on to say that if we as consumers really wanted this model, we’d go to Walmart, buy a cheap laptop, install Chrome, and work within the browser’s limits. But we don’t because we like diversity and applications and…freedom. “Thanks to the iPad,” Elgan wrote, “consumers have come to expect devices that are aesthetically beautiful, graphically appealing and fun. The Chromebook promises only drab utilitarianism.”
And wouldn’t this have been more exciting news if it had come two years ago, when netbooks were all the rage? No one’s buzzing about netbooks anymore. The iPad took care of that, and Apple continues to make some — if not spectacular — inroads into the corporate world.
I’d be curious to know what people in the education sector — specifically the high school sector — think about all this. Is the Chromebook the kind of solution that education IT has been looking for? It may be Google’s best hope.
In business, on the other hand, I suspect that IT has bigger concerns with the integration of smartphones and their attendant apps into the IT infrastructure, not to mention the sudden proliferation of tablets and all that entails. Clearly we need to move more mission-critical software apps into the cloud space where they can be maintained easily, but that will continue to happen with or without Google’s aggressive hardware/software solution. Could it be that the Chromebook is a solution in search of a problem? A 2007 solution for the 2011 environment? Google has done great things with Google Apps and Google Docs to familiarize the world with what the cloud is all about. I’m just not sure we need it to provide us with a hardware solution as well.