In the Mac vs. PC battle for dominance in enterprise computing, a relatively recent contender is punching above its weight class: the Chromebook.
Chromebook shipments rose 80% year over year in 2020 and totaled nearly 30 million units, according to Gartner statistics. The firm mainly attributes the surge to demand from the North American education market. Chromebooks shipments grew by nearly 200% just in the fourth quarter of 2020, reaching 11.7 million units.
Enterprises got interested in Chromebooks last year because there was a "major shortage" of computing equipment last year, according to Mikako Kitagawa, research director at Gartner. "Because all of a sudden, everybody needs to have a laptop." Hardware shortages began in March, and delays in shipments continued through June.
Chromebooks, which run on Google's Chrome OS, already enjoyed an incredible market share within education, according to Jeremy Roberts, research director at Info-Tech Research Group.
"[I] haven't really seen any other verticals be particularly Chrome-intensive," Roberts said. "Everybody's thinking about it, but education is really the No. 1 spot."
The central management capabilities and the simplicity of device management makes Chromebook a tempting option for outfitting workers, especially in the aftermath of a global shortage of hardware. Beyond specific industries, the Chromebook is primed to continue its expansion, gaining ground in customer service roles and small businesses.
In deciding whether Chromebook adoption can solve the hardware woes of the enterprise, IT leaders must first assess their existing applications and weigh the consequences of mismatching with the current tech stack.
Where Chromebooks fit
Education, and K-12 in particular, is the space where Chromebooks shine. Driven by early adoption in existing remote education programs prior to the pandemic, the Chromebook underwent an exercise in scale as learning leaned remote.
In the enterprise, one feature of the Chromebook appealed to IT managers wanting to support a remote work pivot: the configuration and restriction features built into the device.
"Some of the traction I've been seeing is in places like call centers, no matter which industry," said Kitagawa.
Part of the draw for further adoption geared at call center users is the central management capabilities and functionality restriction available to Chromebook set ups. Other kinds of devices require "a lot of work to make the laptop more manageable and more restricted for the users," said Kitagawa.
In call centers, workers require a limited number of applications to do their tasks, which lowers the chance of application incompatibilities. According to Kitagawa, application incompatibilities are the No. 1 problem Chromebook users experience in an enterprise setting.
"For all except the younger organizations that maybe don't have that much legacy [technology], Chrome tends to be a difficult proposition, a big transition," said Roberts. Though IT leaders could bring a subset of its users over to a Chromebook, a fuller pivot is tough.
That's why another space where Chromebook is set to expand its reach is the small- to midsize business space. Startups especially tend to be cloud-native and rely on web-based apps.
"Those companies typically jump onto the cloud-based infrastructure, meaning that applications are landing upon your cloud, so that you don't have to worry too much about application compatibilities," said Kitagawa.
Thinking through a revamp
IT leaders are now grappling with less pressure to procure hardware as employees are mostly set up to work from home and hardware shortages have eased. Some organizations are even beginning to project their return to the office, freeing companies from rushing to snap up devices.
Companies interested in leveraging Chromebooks in their fleet are drawn to its simplicity.
"It's simple for IT and it's simple for the end user," said Roberts. "You can force updates, it's a very closed environment, the devices themselves are interchangeable so if somebody breaks one, you can just swap it out."
Since their capabilities are limited if not connected to the internet, Chromebooks increase visibility into user activity, said Roberts. "Everything is accessed through the web browser which has its own set of enterprise controls."
The main snag for a potential Chromebook pivot is in the performance side, and the ability to align existing applications with the capabilities it allows.
"The big downside is that they don't really do everything that you want them to do," said Roberts. "A Windows machine is just much more performant. It might be a little bit more expensive but it can just do more things."
A hybrid model where big companies deploy Chromebook to users who take on specific tasks is possible, said Kitagawa. "But I still think that large enterprises switching to Chromebooks entirely won't be possible. The friction will be less going forward, that's for sure."