Yesterday, Google announced that they are open-sourcing their Chrome OS (which in turn was announced back in July). I have read a lot of stories, posts, and opinions about what this means. However, as I see it, they’ve all missed an important aspect of Google’s strategy: the Enterprise.
Chrome OS is basically a Linux kernel that does nothing but launch and run the Chrome browser. Google has laid out a roadmap where it will only be available on new devices, initially netbooks. All applications live in the cloud. It’s not intended to be a primary power-user desktop.
While everything I’ve read so far talks about the pros and cons of this approach, few people seem to be looking at what implications this has for the Enterprise.
Companies like Wyse, Citrix, Sun Microsystems, and more recently VMware have long been pushing thin clients for the Enterprise. The main benefits of a thin client being that it’s low cost, usually more secure, and that (for the most part), there’s no local software to manage – it’s all managed centrally, presumably at a datacenter. Their ultimate value proposition was to reduce the TCO for the desktop.
However, these “traditional” thin client approaches often did little more than just put more distance between the display and the OS itself – over a network. Most thin client solutions still run a variant of Microsoft Windows (physical or virtual) with all or most of its issues. More advanced solutions like the SunRay are completely stateless and offer smart card or login-based global roaming and don’t depend on Windows, but enjoy less market penetration, often because of Windows-based application dependencies. The latter being especially true in larger, more established corporations with a larger IT legacy installed base.
Google has been quietly making inroads into the Enterprise with Google Apps and other services. The value proposition is pretty clear, why build and maintain your own infrastructure when you can let someone else do it for much less and gain a lot of mobility benefits along the way?
So if an Enterprise can either move its most common applications into the cloud (or better yet, build it that way from scratch), the next logical step is to replace the old legacy desktop. Those applications that can’t be given a web-based interface for whatever reason, can just be encapsulated through browser-based terminal emulation or remote display.
Chrome OS is Goggle’s Enterprise Thin Client. Except it’s really a next generation thin client. It doesn’t connect the user back to a virtual or shared desktop. It connects the user directly into the cloud.
If Google can obtain meaningful adoption of this model in the Enterprise, the threat to the established practices and players in the industry are quite substantial. In recent years many companies have looked to outsource their IT departments to companies such as IBM, EDS, CSC and ACS. However, this new paradigm now threatens to put those companies into a defensive legacy position against their new competitors, Google, Amazon, Rackspace, and the next game changing cloud-based service.
The game is not over yet, there’s still a lot of legacy infrastructure out there to manage, but Google just made a big play at the Enterprise desktop and few people seem to have noticed.
UPDATE: Scoble has an excellent post on Google’s developer play, which I’m sure is the top priority.