Should I roll out Chrome OS across my business?

Chromebook logo on a laptop

Chromebooks dominate US education, and by ABI Research's calculations they will account for 7% of global notebook PC sales by 2021. They're cheap, easy to maintain, run a long time on a single charge, and are close to malware-immune. Little wonder they're winning converts well beyond the classroom.

Netflix customer support is a pure Chrome OS environment, Pinterest has installed Chromebox for Meetings in its conference rooms, and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham decided to roll out 2,000 Chromebooks and 500 Chromeboxes, rather than upgrading its existing PCs when Windows XP went end of life in April 2014.

If these big names have switched, should you?

Realistic expectations

The first Chromebooks shipped in 2011, and have since been joined by Chromeboxes and Chromebits headless clients that connect to a keyboard, mouse and display and a small number of all-in-ones. Booting into Chrome OS, they run all their applications online, so are as light on hardware as they are on the wallet.

"The range starts at about 150," said Sam Winter, whose company, Cloud Technology Solutions, helps businesses transition to Chrome OS. "That gets you a device for working from the cloud."

Winter admits that Chromebooks aren't designed for designers or developers but claims "they're perfect for using G Suite. Nowadays, everything is very focused on cloud, so to have a device that pushes that towards you is amazing. You can work offline, so long as you're using the right app, like Google Docs, which can download a file to your Chromebook, store your changes locally and push them back to the cloud the next time you have Wi-Fi."

G Suite, a version of Google's consumer apps for enterprise, is charged by the seat. As well as extra storage, it includes the most serious challenger applications to Office 365. Google has supplied software-as-a-service for longer than Microsoft, and it shows. Chrome OS devices may be thin clients, but they're underpinned by heavyweight applications and the range is set to grow.

"We're in the process of porting the Android Play Store so that it works on Chromebooks," explained Michael Wyatt, Google's head of EMEA for Chrome and Android for Enterprise. "As of a few weeks ago, every new Chromebook that hits the market will have the ability to run Android apps from the Play Store." The implication is obvious: enterprises developing tailored in-house applications will soon be able to run them on desktops, laptops, tablets and phones for seamless multi-platform operation.

Enterprise-grade applications

Of course, not all organisations develop their own applications in-house, but even those wedded to traditional enterprise cornerstones are served by Chrome OS.

Chrome RDP, Citrix XenApp and VMware each have solutions for accessing a Windows desktop using Chromebook, and the Borough of Barking and Dagenham used Citrix virtual desktop to access council applications when it first made the switch from Windows, before transitioning to new apps that run natively inside the browser.

"We ask a lot of questions from businesses that are looking to jump platforms," Winter said. "They each have their own specific needs, so the first thing we do is figure out if they're using any software for which there are alternative online solutions. Nine times out of ten there are."

Indeed, the main objection Winter encounters is unfamiliarity with Google's apps. "You can still use Office 365's online applications, of course, but I'd always remind the customer that these devices have been designed to work with G Suite, and I'd recommend giving it a go."

Nik Rawlinson is a journalist with over 20 years of experience writing for and editing some of the UK’s biggest technology magazines. He spent seven years as editor of MacUser magazine and has written for titles as diverse as Good Housekeeping, Men's Fitness, and PC Pro.

Over the years Nik has written numerous reviews and guides for ITPro, particularly on Linux distros, Windows, and other operating systems. His expertise also includes best practices for cloud apps, communications systems, and migrating between software and services.