Most readers know I took a break from the IT industry from mid-2016 until I started at VMware in early 2018. During my first week at VMware, I attended an event where my new colleague Matt Lesak spoke to an audience about VMware’s EUC strategy. He did the entire presentation from a Chromebook, and made a comment to the audience about how it was his primary computing device. When the presentation was over, I went up to him and asked, “Dude, so what actual laptop is in your bag that you really use?” He said, “No, for real, I actually use a Chromebook."
This was a surprise to me, since as far as I knew, Chromebooks were super-cheap devices for kids. But here was a coworker of mine, working at a company where employees can literally use whatever device they want, using a Chromebook! On purpose!
I got a quick case of FOMO and I wanted to try one too. As an unmarried child-free person, I naturally looked for the most expensive Chromebook I could find. (No Johnnie Walker Red in the Madden house.) I ended up with a Google Pixelbook that I paid about $1700 for.
Before you shout, “WHAT? 1700 dollars for a CHROMEBOOK? ARE YOU ON DRUGS?!?”, let me assure you this is not your kid’s Chromebook. The Pixelbook’s specs are what you'd expect in any 1700 dollar laptop: i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB NVMe SSD, 2400x1600 display, metal case, backlit keys, flips over backwards into a tablet, pen, touch screen, 4 mics, all day battery, giant multi-touch trackpad, etc, etc. In fact the Pixelbook is the best hardware of any laptop that I’ve ever used, and I’ve been a Mac user since 2006 and was a ThinkPad guy the decade before that.
Do I need that hardware just to run Chrome? Of course not. But Windows and Mac users equally don’t need that hardware just to run a browser and Office either.
The point is that the Pixelbook was so good, I actually tried to use it as a real laptop, Lesak-style. And in doing so, I realized something: The Chromebook has the potential to be huge in the enterprise. In fact it could be the ultimate enterprise device.
Why’s that? Four reasons.
1. Stateless OS
First, you probably know that Chromebooks run the Chrome OS. The Chrome OS is stateless. This is awesome.
To be clear, a stateless OS is not non-persistent. In other words, a stateless OS still saves my files and settings and apps I installed and what I was doing after I power it off. What makes the OS stateless is that the OS itself doesn’t change as apps are installed or user settings are changed. The OS is in a sort of protective bubble, separate from the apps. This means that a stateless OS can be updated without fear that it’s going to break a bunch of apps, or without the fear that some bad apps or weird settings are going to break the OS or prevent it from updating properly. A stateless OS also means the apps don’t interfere with each other, so you don’t have to worry about whether one app will break another.
Obviously this sounds like OS heaven, which it is, because this is the way that iOS and Android work today. People love iOS and Android.
This is not the way Windows works today. People do not love Windows. Well, some people do, but even they don’t love that Windows gets jankier and slower over time, and that they have to periodically rebuild it, and that they have to worry about App A conflicting with App B, etc. (Sidebar, I just registered the domain jankier.com. I don’t know why.)
But people love stateless OSes like iOS and Android. The problem is those devices only come in phone and tablet form factors.
2. Laptop form factor
A Chromebook is a laptop. There is a keyboard, a precision pointing device (mouse, trackpad, or that pencil eraser thing ThinkPad users love), and a screen that's attached via a hinge that stays where you leave it.
People like laptops. They are perfect for your lap, a desk, an airplane seat, Starbucks, or any of the other locations people spend 99.9% of their working day in. Pretty much anywhere you want to sit and work. Like a normal human.
Before Chromebooks, the “other” option for using a stateless OS while sitting with a keyboard required some creativity. You had to get a keyboard that magneted onto the tablet, as well an origami-style foldable support to hold the screen part up, and then you had stick a pencil in the middle of the side. Then you take a photo and submit it to ThereIfixedIt.com with the caption, “Look I built a stateless laptop!" where you'll see it posted next to a photo of a guy riding a forklift pallet on three castor wheels powered by a snowblower engine driving down I-77.
You might be tempted to think that this whole “stateless laptop” thing is just something that we geeks talk about, and that normal humans don’t actually know (or care) what “stateless” is. But just walk around an airport and see how many folks are using these Rube Goldberg iPad contraptions. They really, really want a stateless laptop! (So much in fact that they’ll allow the indignity of dropping to the cabin floor whenever the person on the plane in front of them reclines, scrambling to collect all the pieces to put their Humpty Dumpty “laptop" back together again.)
The high-end Chromebook is the stateless laptop these humans want.
3. Deep catalog of local apps
Of course Microsoft also realized there was an opportunity for a stateless laptop. Microsoft has the laptop part down. They just had to figure out how to make it stateless.
There have been several attempts at this from Redmond over the years. (Cough-cough-Windows-RT-cough.) The latest is Windows 10 “S” mode. (Microsoft claims the “S” in S mode doesn’t actually stand for anything. Not stateless. Or secure. Or streamlined. Or definitely not the main S-word you’re thinking of.)
The problem is that Windows 10 isn’t stateless. Windows gets jankier (tm) over time. So how does Microsoft address this in S mode? First, since those pesky Windows applications you’ve been using for the past 25 years can jack things up, they’re all banned in S mode. Microsoft only allows S mode laptops to run Windows Store (“Universal Windows Platform”) apps. Windows can also get messed up by people poking around in places they shouldn’t, like the registry, with PowerShell, or by using the command prompt. So the ability to do all those things has also been removed from Windows 10 S mode.
In that sense, Microsoft succeeded. You take a regular Windows laptop, remove the ability to install traditional Windows applications, and don’t let users touch the registry, and by golly, you’ve got a laptop that’s stateless and streamlined and secure! Awesome!
One wonders, however, if one had a Windows laptop that can’t run Windows apps and that can’t use traditional Windows management tools, why, exactly, is one running Windows in the first place? I mean, how many UWP apps are there? (Seriously can you even name one? Skype? Angry Birds?) Windows 10 S mode users quickly start to question why they're paying for Windows in the first place!
Chrome OS, on the other hand, has the ability to run Android apps, and the Google Play store currently has over 2.5 million of them. (Are they all quality? Of course not, but neither are traditional Windows apps.) Sure, not every Android app has been tuned to be used with a keyboard and precision pointing device, but many Android apps work perfectly fine on a Chromebook.
4. Real desktop browser
So a Chromebook is a stateless OS with a laptop form factor that has the ability to run the deep catalog of Android apps. Awesome. The final advantage of Chrome OS that a lot of people don’t think about is that it has a real desktop browser. (Chrome, duh.)
How important is that? I’ll answer with a question: Have you ever tried to use an iPad as a laptop replacement? Follow up: How’d that work out?
Fig 1. That time from last summer when I believed a smug child who told me my iPad Pro was a real computer.
The iPad does not have a real desktop browser. Android tablets do not have real desktop browsers. They both run lite / mobile versions of browsers.
You might be thinking, “But I can download Chrome for iOS from the iOS App Store!” (Same goes for Firefox, Opera, and others.) It’s true! You can download an app called “Chrome” from the iOS app store. There’s a catch, though. Apple does not allow third party browsers on iOS. So that Chrome browser you installed on your iPad still uses the same built-in mobile Safari rendering engine as the built-in Safari browser. Third party “browser” iOS apps just add the other stuff back in that’s missing from Safari, like the ability to track every site you go to and what route you take to work. But the core web rendering is still limited to the “lite” mobile capabilities.
On Chrome OS, however, you have the real, desktop version of the Chrome browser. Even better, you have the ability to use Chrome extensions and plug-ins.
Putting all four of those together, it looks like the Chromebook is poised to take off in the enterprise. So why am I typing this blog post on a four-year-old MacBook Pro?
For me, the reason is simple: Chrome OS, in its current state, is designed to for an “always on” internet connection. While that’s not an issue on the ground these days, I still fly too much, and airplane WiFi is too spotty and expensive to fully trust.
If the Chromebook was just an Android laptop that also had a full desktop browser (actually, that’s literally exactly what it is), I’d be fine with it. The Android apps work great offline. The problem for me is my files. On my laptop, I have Dropbox, OneDrive and/or Google Drive to ensure my laptop always has the latest version of whatever I need. Trying to replicate this behavior on a Chromebook is an exercise in frustration as the Android versions of these file sync & share apps are not designed to constantly run in the background and sync everything.
But honestly that’s my only issue. (Well, if I’m being truthful I’m also slightly afraid my friends will forget about me if I leave the Apple iMessage ecosystem.)
That said, for people who stay on the ground and have an always-on internet connection, the Chromebook is very, very attractive. You have a stateless OS in a laptop form factor that can run any Android app and has a real desktop browser. Boom! Done. At my home, the Chromebook is the device that lives on my couch that I use almost non-stop throughout my day. My MacBook is relegated to my desk where it powers a large external display which I save for my real work, like browsing the web and using Microsoft Office.
If you haven’t taken a look at a Chromebook, look again. It doesn’t have to be the Pixelbook, but look at a real grown-up one and not something you found for 200 bucks in the grocery store checkout line. I think you’ll be surprised, and you’ll understand why the Chromebook very likely could become THE enterprise client device of the future.