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Chrome OS and IT platform longevity

Google’s targeting of Chrome OS is interesting. Rather than trying to attract consumers, who have demonstrated that they’re not interested in “Net PC”-like browser-only hardware, Google is positioning Chrome OS hardware as inexpensive, low-IT-overhead alternatives for businesses to deploy instead of desk computers.

In last week’s Talk Show, John Gruber and Dan Benjamin discussed why it may finally be a good time for this: a lot of computers today in businesses exist solely to run a web browser. John’s example is almost every computer in a typical bank branch, on which the agents usually just type your information into a series of web-browser forms in order to do their jobs. Assuming any Internet Explorer dependencies can be removed without too much trouble, these are ideal candidates to be replaced with Chrome OS.

But there’s a major problem with this idea: technological conservatism at this scale.

Most businesses that could use such a setup are large, and deploying a major technological change to their staff is a huge and very expensive undertaking. Even if Google somehow gave them thousands of Chrome OS netbooks for free, any company attempting this will need to spend a ton of money in IT labor, employee training, and increased help-desk needs as the organization deployed the new setup.

That’s why that PC on your banker’s desk is probably running Windows 2000, an 11-year-old platform: because it’s extraordinarily expensive to update it, and the current system works acceptably without any massive, one-time expenditures on this year’s budget.

In the context of replacing business software platforms, longevity is a major requirement. For Chrome OS to be considered by any reasonably large business, their IT decision-makers are going to want to know that Chrome OS is going to be around and supported by Google many years from now.1 Support means, at least, that compatible hardware must be available, software licensing must continue, and security issues must be patched.

And any reasonably competent IT executive can plainly see that Google, for all of their algorithmic might, isn’t known for product longevity.

Sure, their core web products have been around for a while and aren’t going anywhere. But they launch a lot more products every year that we quickly forget about, and many of the unsuccessful products are quietly discontinued a few months or years later.

Google’s just not in the business of providing long-term support for an unsuccessful product line. It’s part of what allows them to keep releasing new things all the time while geeks declare Microsoft a boring old dinosaur. But IT departments need their platform vendors to behave much more like Microsoft.

I doubt many corporate IT execs are going to take the risk that Chrome OS will be a stable enough long-term platform to deploy to their companies’ workforces. As the saying goes, nobody ever got fired

  1. Windows 2000 was officially supported until July 13, 2010 (really), just over a decade after its release. Windows XP, which was released in 2001, will be supported until at least 2014↩︎