Chromebooks: Worth a Second Look?

Chromebook computers didn’t take the world by storm when they debuted last year, but the latest generation of the machines may deserve another look.

Last June, the first commercial Chromebooks — laptops running Google’s Chrome OS — arrived on the scene (Google’s Cr-48 prototype surfaced earlier). Samsung and Acer introduced the first models. But by fall 2011, reports of lackluster sales began to surface.

The technology has soldiered on, however. Samsung released a new generation of Chromebooks — the Series 5 550 — in May, while Google rolled out a new build of its Chrome OS. Also in May, Samsung and Google launched a desktop machine called a Chromebox.

Developers and resellers said they believe the new hardware and software significantly improve the Chrome OS-based offerings. On the hardware side, more powerful CPUs provide a boost.

“They are substantially faster,” says Aric Bandy, chief executive officer of Agosto Inc., of the new Chromebook Series 5 devices. “They also fixed a couple of the hardware quirks.”

As for the latter, according to Bandy, the Chromebook’s trackpad was the No. 1 issue. He noted the trackpad has been reworked and the driver rewritten for the current product generation. “It is finally what you would expect from a trackpad on a laptop,” explains Bandy. His company, a Google Apps and cloud consulting firm, has been a Chromebook reseller for several months.

The hardware improvements, in turn, have provided a lift for developers. Dan Shappir, chief technology officer (CTO) and vice president of research and development at Ericom Software, cites the new Chromebook’s performance. Ericom offers AccessNow, an HTML5 Remote Desktop Protocol client that provides access to Windows desktops and applications from devices including Chromebooks.

“The new generation of Chromebooks — and Chromeboxes — provides improved performance over previous generations and … can enhance the speed and responsiveness of Ericom AccessNow when remotely accessing content such as videos and animations,” says Shappir.

AccessNow uses Web Audio API for playing remote audio on end-point devices, but older Chromebooks such as the CR-48 lack support for that feature and some of the newer HTML5 capabilities as well. Ericom, however, has optimized Access Now so that it has good performance on the older generation Chromebooks, according to Shappir.

Chromebooks Software Update

David Hoff, CTO at Cloud Sherpas, a cloud service provider which resells Chromebooks, suggests Google’s Chrome OS update represents a more dramatic improvement than the Chromebook hardware refresh. Originally, Chrome OS offered only a full-screen interface and lacked other familiar OS features such as task bars, notes Hoff.

The experience “felt kind of foreign” to users, says Hoff, adding the Chrome OS has since adopted features that offer a greater level of comfort to people accustomed to traditional interfaces.

“The latest build of Chrome OS has become a lot more friendly for the user,” says Danny Allan, CTO at Desktone, which provides cloud-hosted desktops as a service. “It is closer to a traditional OS — just the way they do the windowing and the icons.”

Shappir pointed to the introduction of Aura, the Chrome OS window manager, as a good move on Google’s part. “It provides Chrome OS with an interface that is more in-tune with end-user expectations,” says Shappir. ‘Being able to view and interact with several browser windows at the same time is definitely an advantage.”

The software update combined with the increased speed of the new hardware platform has piqued the interest of corporate buyers, says Bandy. He cited a deal his company closed last month with a customer that calls for 2,800 Chromebooks, although he is not at liberty to identify the customer. “It is actually gaining quite a bit of traction in the enterprise space, which previously didn’t pay that close attention to the Chromebooks,” says Bandy.

Developer Interest in Chromebooks

Bandy expects the Chrome OS software development ecosystem to rise in parallel with increasing market adoption. “As more manufacturers … build Chrome OS devices, you will see greater market adoption and, as you see that, you will see more software specifically written for these devices,” explains Bandy.

And while the market for Chrome OS devices has only just begun to emerge, developers have already created “cool extensions and tie-ins to cloud-based and premise-based platforms for the Chrome browser,” notes Bandy.

Apps and extensions for the Chrome environment that help pull in enterprise applications include Citrix Receiver for Chromebook, which lets users tap hosted desktops and applications provided via XenDesktop and other Citrix technologies.

Ericom AccessNow, as noted, offers access to Windows apps, while Desktone has enabled its cloud-hosted desktop-as-a-service offering to run within Chrome.

According to Allan, Desktone plans to keep backing Chrome OS devices. “I like the model and … we will continue to support it as an option for our customers.”

Ericom, for its part, expects to develop additional software targeting the Chrome OS devices. Shappir says the company plans to roll out terminal emulation to connect to a variety of systems. Those platforms will include IBM mainframe, AS/400, HP 3000, Tandem, OpenVMS, Unix and Linux.