ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: Chromebooks shake up corporate computing
Two years ago, one of the world's largest companies made a purchasing decision that was the computer world's equivalent of an earthquake: Airbus decided to move its entire 121,000-strong workforce from traditional Windows PCs to Chromebooks, the economical, stripped-down notebooks running on Google's Chrome operating system. Major brands such as Acer, Lenovo and Samsung have been building the machines for some time, largely targeting the education sector, with its need for low-cost, high-capacity devices.
Airbus achieved 22% savings from the deployment, but that was only a secondary factor, said Paul Collins, South African country manager of Acer. "The major factor was collaboration. Not only internally, but also with suppliers and clients, using Google Hangouts for virtual meetings and sharing documents in real time."
Now, Acer is taking the logical next step: building Chromebooks specifically for businesses. At its annual Next@Acer press conference in New York on Thursday, it unveiled two new premium Acer Chromebook lines, the Acer Chromebook 715 and Acer Chromebook 714, "designed to help employees work in the cloud more securely and efficiently".
Both machines feature specs one doesn't normally find in education-oriented devices: an aluminium chassis that delivers military-grade durability, and an integrated fingerprint reader. They offer full high-definition displays and up to 12 hours of battery life.
James Lin, head of Notebooks and IT product business at Acer Inc, said the machines are aimed at employees of all types, "whether in a corporate office, small business, or an educational setting". All of them, he said, need "reliable, powerful PCs that help protect their data, perform well and look great".
The most startling thing about the enterprise Chromebooks is that, unlike the visual tour de force represented by the new Predator and Nitro gaming laptops unveiled at the same event, these machines are designed to blend in rather than stand out. They are designed to look good "on a front desk for customer-facing settings, as well as on the road with employees making client visits or sales calls".
That helps to explain why demand is growing in some of the industries that are the most conservative in embracing new technologies. According to Collins, one of the top three retailers in SA is looking at rolling out 20,000 Chromebooks for its staff. The appeal is "staying ahead of digital disruption" and wanting the next big thing, but being constrained by security costs and collaboration. As at Airbus, the Chromebooks will address both challenges.
"The designs are sleek and Applesque," he told Business Times. "They don't fail, can last days on one charge, and are eminently secure in the corporate environment."
The most powerful selling point is likely to be one that is invisible from the outside of the laptop. The new Acer Chromebooks have been certified by Citrix, a world leader in business software systems that provide secure business applications and data on any device or in any digital workspace.
• Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee..