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Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Google's Game Changers: Are They Enough?

With Chromebooks, an improved tablet OS, and more, Google took aim at Apple and Microsoft, but are ChromeOS and Android on a collision course?

This week was Google's turn to dazzle, and it didn't disappoint. New tablets, an improved tablet OS, new developer tools for turning virtually anything into an Android peripheral, the promise of a unified Android across devices, improved browser performance, an evolved ChromeOS now tied to a hardware strategy called Chromebooks ... and that's just a partial list of Google I/O winning moments.

CIOs, end users, and consumers have to be impressed with the aggressive pace Google sets, and with its vision of a mobile, web-based world, even if the benefits are sometimes distant. Companies have to buy from what exists today, but CIOs also have to make bets based on what happens next, and Google certainly showed its cards this week.

CIOs are finally admitting that, when it comes to personal computing, the users are in charge. The days of listening to the customer--internal and external--replaced the days of dictating a solution. But we're now entering an era where CIOs are simply watching the behavior and adapting. That means sandboxing and managing corporate and personal data and applications on the same device, enforcing security and policies across platforms, addressing privacy and compliance concerns, and in some cases forgiving the exuberance about devices that seem to have become human appendages.

How, then, does Google break through? Phones based on its Android operating system have finally begun a march toward parity, if not market domination (the company claims it has activated 100 million devices worldwide). It's done so largely through its Microsoft-like strategy of creating an OEM channel that allows for innovation and iteration, with all the requisite missteps--an almost-necessary aspect to Google's success. If Google views its flaws as teachable moments, Apple's are purposeful and planned. Customers decide which approach wins, and both are winning.

Google is living through some more difficult teachable moments now (poor tablet sales, for one), and while learning is hard-coded into the Google innovation process, how quickly that happens will decide Google's short-term fate. This week, Google shed light on a mobile vision that transcends devices and release dates and applications, taking great pains to dig at Apple and wedge distinctions wherever it could.

Google also took aim at Microsoft, questioning the very existence of Windows on desktops and laptops, practically declaring the end of the PC era, with ChromeOS paving the way toward a completely web-based computing model. Make no mistake: Google wants to power the computing devices of the next decade and beyond, and it's going right after the most dominant players.

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It's easy to fall for Google. It never fails to invent, its energy never seems to wane. Its vision not only resonates, it captivates. But its dual-pronged desire to beat both Apple and Microsoft will take time and will and execution, all while neither competitor is standing still. Apple's developer conference is a few weeks away, and Apple is loathe to be upstaged by anyone. Microsoft's acquisition of Skype might be just the beginning of its re-tooling, if not quite an ending to its long-standing role as tortoise to Apple and Google hares.

Wise CIOs won't make bets based on what they desire, but on the desire of their customers--both internal and external. Employees and customers want iPads and iPhones, CIOs want BlackBerries--though maybe that's less true today, as evidenced by the explosion of the mobile device management market. Today, Google falls somewhere in between.

Google's Mobile Mosh Pit

It's difficult to call Apple's lead in tablets or its momentum in smartphones insurmountable. It's far too early. But it sure is impressive. Google has plodded along, defiantly facing questions about fragmentation as it created one OS for smartphones, one for tablets. But that will change later this year with Ice Cream Sandwich, a unification of the operating systems that Google is providing absolutely no details on. Just build Honeycomb apps, Google told developers; trust us.

Honeycomb keeps getting better. Apple's year-long head-start makes iOS seem as if it's a natural user experience, but Honeycomb includes some incredibly useful ways to navigate and multitask, including version 3.1's expandable apps list (previously limited to the last five apps), and re-sizable widgets for things like email and calendars (previously boxed into small window).

Google is also adding functionality to the action bar and building out its app framework, which lets developers access a standard set of application functionality. The company demonstrated innovations like using voice recognition for camera tracking--wherever the speaker is sitting, the camera will detect the right angle to project.

Honeycomb now also includes USB connectivity for bringing in pictures from cameras, or plugging in controllers or other USB accessories. In fact, Google painted a world where Android devices become the controlling elements for any type of appliance. Android 3.1 will run Google TV and will use the same tablet SDK. Google is also working [email protected], a framework that foresees an Android device communicating with home appliances. Already Lighting Science has Android-based LED lightbulbs and switches in the works, for example.

CIOs like vision. If Google is investing at this pace (company officials said software release cycles happen every six weeks), that matters. At BlackBerry World, one CIO said that he was there simply to check on his investment. His company has been all-in on BlackBerry, and in the face of the typical iPad influx, mixed with a dramatic drop in Research In Motion's market value, he was concerned. His company is not a small concern.

But users don't want vision, they wants apps--useful and productive apps, fun and entertaining apps, work and convenience apps, browser and email apps, media apps. Android believers may be perfectly satisfied with what's available now (200,000 apps, according to Google), or patient enough to wait for what will come, but Google hasn't made it easy for developers who want to target multiple devices. Unification is the first big step.

Instead of unification details, Google said that it wanted every developer to have a Honeycomb tablet, and gave away more than 5,000 of them. Apple hasn't needed to do that. Just sayin.

The biggest surprise coming out of Google I/O, at least for the enterprise, was the Google Chromebook, the laptop-like computers from Samsung and Acer, running ChromeOS. The Chromebook has been in beta for nearly a year in a grand run at thin client computing, the 21st century model, backed by great faith in the inevitable dominance of cloud-based applications and a web-centric computing model.

Microsoft's desktop hegemony has suffered, but hasn't waned, despite Google's declaration that the traditional desktop is a flawed computing model. (For an in-depth stance on the importance of the Chromebook, read Thomas Claburn's analysis here.) Or as Sergey Brin eloquently put it:"I think the complexity of managing your computers is really torturing users, all of them."

It couldn't have come at a better time. CIOs are now considering their next PC fleet, and whether it looks the same or becomes stocked with tablets. Chromebook for Business, from Google, starts at $28 per user per month. It doesn't include a data plan (that is $2 per user per month extra) or Google Apps (another $50-a-year license). It does include a device, three years of support and warranty, and a central management tool to create an app store-like environment, where users and applications get automatically provisioned. It is a three-year plan, and Google said there is no early-termination fee. That's asking for a big bet.

The idea here is to get IT out of the messy and costly business of support, and on to revenue-producing projects. Fanboi CIOs at Google I/O said any cost of ownership savings wouldn't go to cutting costs, but getting to the endless IT honeydo list.

ChromeOS is tightly coupled with hardware--for now, that's Samsung and Acer (unless the crafty hacker gets at it). Demonstrations at a private Samsung event revealed thin, lightweight laptops that boot instantly, stay connected (when possible) and assume a world of web-based applications running in the cloud. USB ports allow external data in, and a file manager provides web application access to that data. The updated ChromeOS also includes a media player. Any ChromeOS application can take advantage of local cache to run in offline mode. Citrix will ship a Receiver client for access to local Windows apps for any company using XenApp.

Again with the vision thing. Google trotted out Gartner TCO estimates for desktops, the raft of computer viruses and help desk calls. For $336 per year, all of that goes away. The ChromeOS boot process is highly secure, Google said, and the same sandbox capability that the Chrome browser champions is also present in the operating system, which is to say that tabs (or apps running in a tab) are protected from one another. One CIO said that Chromebook rollouts in his organization resulted in a dramatic drop in help desk calls--to almost zero.

Hello? It's 1999 calling, and it wants its thin client computing model back. We bought it then, we'll buy it now, but it's still plagued with some of the same concerns. This might be a far more connected world, but it's not completely connected--not even close. CIOs I spoke with want this, but none are ready to commit to it. They are intrigued, but not compelled. One noted that perhaps an application like the Touchdown for Android could become a viable ChromeOS front end for Exchange customers . . . hmmm. Maybe.

One CIO said that although some ERP applications allow web access, they do so using Active X controls, which will not work in Chrome. In other words, all web apps aren't created equal.

(Note: the consumer Chromebooks are retail plays. Samsung's product comes in at $429 for the Wi-Fi-only version, $499 for 3G version; Acer starts at $349. These include a data plan that tops out at 100 MB of data at the $499 price.)

Parting Fragment

Let's review: Google thinks the world is mobile. Google thinks the world is web.

Isn't the world mobile web? In the face of a barrage of questions about the obvious-to-everyone-except-Google notion that ChromeOS and Android are headed on a collision course, Google is mum. It insists that the two teams are separate. The ChromeOS team is 100% focused on notebooks. Hard-headed. Then again, if it staked a future on the convergence, it would face yet another fragmentation.

It's the price of an experimental universe. Let it serve them well.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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