Chrome OS: From Education to the Enterprise

In less than four years, Google has completely overturned the educational computing market. In 2012, Chromebook sales were less than 1% of all devices shipped within the K–12 education market. By the end of 2013, shipments had increased to 25%. In May of this year, Chrome OS device sales (Chromebook and Chromebox) passed 50% of the education market for the first time. With the education market all but sewn up, how will Chrome fare in the enterprise?

Chrome OS in Education

I’ve covered the justification for Chromebooks in education in depth here in the past, but to quickly recap: physical robustness, physical keyboard, screen size, browser compatibility, Google Docs, low device cost, and now, low management cost. A recent report from IDC on Chrome in the education market shows that the three-year cost of ownership is 61% lower than the cost for comparable PCs and tablets. In a chronically underfunded, understaffed education sector looking to increase the role that computers play in education, this is an overwhelming advantage.

Apple, once dominant in K–12 education, has seen its market share decline precipitously in the last few years. iPad sales have been particularly bad for Apple, falling from 40% in 2013 down to just 17% this year, with MacBook sales accounting for only 4%. Apple is not taking this decline in sales very well. In an interview with BuzzFeed News in December, Apple CEO Tim Cook dismissed laptops as “test machines.” He seems to fail to understand that schools cannot afford to purchase one set of computers for testing and another for education.

We are interested in helping students learn and teachers teach, but tests, no,” Cook said. “We create products that are whole solutions for people—that allow kids to learn how to create and engage on a different level.”

With Google continuing to advance its merger of Chrome and Android, any app advantage that iOS has over Chrome will quickly evaporate. At the same time, Apple is unlikely to engage in a race to the bottom by bringing out its own range of low-cost devices. While its loss of market share in education must be a source of chagrin, it isn’t yet hurting Apple’s bottom line enough to precipitate a change of direction.

However, if the current K–12 generation takes a liking to Chrome and sticks with it through college and into the workplace, Apple might see its current enviable position—with MacBook sales largely insulated from the overall decline in the PC market—start to crumble. That said, can Chrome cut it in the enterprise?

Chrome OS in the Enterprise

Almost without exception, the enterprise requires just four things from its desktops:

  • A browser
  • Windows apps
  • Management
  • Security

Access to a browser and Windows apps (via an RDS host) are both givens today that require no further explanation. Chromebook management abilities are generally less mature than systems for Windows desktops, and as such may not meet the needs of every organization. However, as an OS platform, Chrome has far fewer elements to manage and may well suffice to meet the needs of most organizations. Initially, Chrome OS management options were limited to those provided by Google. However, Dell introduced support for Chrome to its KACE K1000 desktop management platform in 2015 (reviewed here), and others following.

From a management perspective, the biggest shortcoming that Chrome has today is less one of configuration than it is one of support. In all but the smallest single-site organizations, screen shadowing/remote control is a near-essential tool to ensure the provision of timely, cost-efficient support services. Here, Chrome is still lacking. Remote support via the Chrome Remote Desktop app was first introduced to the Chrome OS developer channel in January 2015. But even now, it cannot be relied upon completely. Remote Desktop appears stable in the current v52 release, but there have been multiple reports of problems with v51.

Chrome OS does have an enviable reputation as a relatively secure platform when compared to more mainstream alternatives. Not only is it much harder to opt out of the aggressive update cadence that Google has adopted, but with a significantly smaller threat surface, it is easier to secure. The only real drawback to Chrome OS is that there is no way to install third-party security products without digging into the guts of the machine, a process that is not encouraged unless you know exactly what you are doing. Even then, it can invalidate the benefits of Google’s aggressive patching process.

IDC’s report provided a breakdown of the management benefits over Windows desktops, as follows:

Component Savings
Device Management Cost 74%
Deployment Cost 53%
Device Management Time 68%
Deployment Time 93%
Security Management Time 75%
Problem Management Time 82%

Given that the cost of managing a Windows desktop is frequently quoted as being about $1,000 to $1,200 per year, a savings of 74% represents a significant benefit.

Organizations that are heavily dependent on Windows applications may find the additional cost of a larger RDS infrastructure to support these applications eating into the savings that Chrome offers. However, for organizations that have successfully managed to reduce their dependency on Windows apps, Chrome is starting to look as though it may be able to hold its own against Windows and OS X.

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