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Subscription Chromebooks: IT Managers' Dream, Users' Nightmare

Look out business users!  Your corporate-issued ThinkPad, EliteBook, or Latitude could soon be replaced by the ultimate lockbox. At Google I/O today, the search giant announced that it's going to start a Chromebook rental program for businesses and schools, with subscriptions starting at $28 a month for the enterprise and $20 for educational institutions. Google calls this program "Chromebooks for Business & Education," but you may end up calling it "Application Alcatraz."

For $280 per year per user, companies will get full support from Google, including an IT management console that allows them to exert fine control over everything from users' home pages to which web apps are allowed. Better still from a CIO's perspective, users will not be able to install software that could potentially harm network security or violate corporate IT policies.

Of course, these notebooks will come with some hidden costs. A minimum 36-month commitment is required for each user, making that $429 Samsung Series 5 actually cost $840. And software packages such as Google Apps for Business are not included in that price.

But for some businesses, the premium may be worth it. No need to toy with Windows user permissions. No way for upstart users to argue that they should have the right to install the browser of their choice or that they need a torrent client for work purposes. Their computer's now a toaster oven; they can't customize it even if you wanted them to.

The concept of a locked-down, network-only PC that's nothing more than a screen and keyboard is as old as the abacus. Twenty years ago, my college computer lab was filled with so-called dumb terminals that allowed students to log into the mainframe and read their e-mails. Today, some businesses deploy "thin clients," notebooks that have almost no local storage and can only work by logging onto the network. When deployed to business users, the Chromebook is just an HP Mobile Thin Client with a colorful logo.

There are two huge reasons why thin clients haven't set the business world on fire. First, Internet access isn't as reliable and ubiquitous as Google hopes. When users hit the road and find themselves in an area with inconsistent 3G or in a hotel room with craptastic Wi-Fi, they'll pull their hair out at the thought of connecting to a Citrix virtual desktop or using some offline cached version of Google docs. Even in the comfort of an office, connecting to the cloud eats a lot more bandwidth than opening files on your hard drive. What if your office only has DSL with 1 Mbps upload speeds and you have 10 employees trying to upload HD presentations to the cloud?

More important than the bandwidth constraints are the productivity constraints associated with thin client computing. The more you lock down employees' work computers, the more you force them to rely on their own devices for personal use. For most IT departments, this separation between business and home computing is desirable for security reasons, but it can be detrimental to productivity. If the line between work and play becomes blurry, users are checking their work e-mail while they play World of Warcraft or surf Facebook at 9 p.m. If there's a clear division, they're logging into the corporate Chromebook at 9 a.m. and shutting down at 5 p.m., only to boot up their home PCs later.

Enterprise notebook makers such as HP and Lenovo have realized that their machines are equal parts enterprise and entertainment devices. That's why the ThinkPad maker has included optional Blu-ray drives on its systems and recently added Dolby Home Theater 4 to its Edge line. "At the same time workers are using systems 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they are taking them home and checking personal email, searching the web, playing music videos and other multimedia," ThinkPad marketing director Tom Butler recently told the Mail and Guardian.

Locked-down notebooks such as the Business Chromebook also force users to change their work habits and patterns, sometimes for the worse. If I can do my job 10 percent faster because I'm more comfortable using Firefox than Chrome, why force me to use the latter? That's like making me type on an "ergonomic" keyboard that slows down my typing by 15 wpm, just because you think everyone should use the same thing.

Benjamin Franklin was obviously referring to Google's Chromebooks for Business & Education when he wrote, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

With a standard Windows or Mac notebook, there's room for both security and flexibility. Users can have the best of both offline and online applications on the same device. IT managers can control which software users can have, but they can also show flexibility by allowing users to run the custom applications that help them be their most productive. With a locked-down enterprise Chromebook, there's no room for that kind of compromise.