(Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 15----Everything you need to know about Chromebooks
Egan Co. employees dub them "mobile filing cabinets."
The Brooklyn Park-based construction company, when deploying its teams to its dozens of work sites, used to send along a big plastic cabinet brimming with paper files. Workers would receive blank timesheets from the cabinet, fill them out and hand them back for faxing to the home office, where someone would have to painstakingly type the numbers into a database.
This system required modernizing, but Egan was not eager to replace it with Internet-linked Windows computers.
It had heard horror stories about other companies with piles of malware-cripple notebooks, as the company's chief information officer, Jim Nonn, notes in a video at bitly.com/eganchromebooks.
Then Egan learned about the Chromebook, a simplified and Web-centric kind of laptop that is beginning to give the Windows world serious competition.
Today, Egan foremen's Chromebooks are, essentially, windows to the Web and all of their documents, now available online in digital form for access from anywhere.
Those timesheets, for instance, get entered into a Web-based spreadsheet, and are added to Egan's records at once -- no more squinting at handwriting on paper forms back at HQ.
This has meant an efficiency boon, said Nonn, whose company has done electrical work on the soon-to-be-finished Central Corridor light-rail line, or Green Line, connecting the Twin Cities' two downtowns.
Chromebooks, little more than niche computing devices a year or two ago, entered the mainstream last year as hit holiday-season purchases, as must-have classroom computers and -- to a growing extent -- work-world essentials.
Paul real estate agent Teresa Boardman swears by her Chromebook, which she had originally purchased for her father because of its low cost and simplicity. It is a shared device now, with separate log-ins for various family members, but she uses it the most.
"I do a lot of writing on it" by way of a Web-based word processor, said Boardman, who is a prolific blogger. "I absolutely can write real estate contracts on it."
Chromebooks from a range of makers accounted for 21 percent of laptop sales in 2013, up from a "negligible" share in 2012, according to the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group, a market research firm. Windows-laptop sales saw no growth during the same period, NPD said in findings released late last year.
Chromebooks have sold well on Amazon.com. Three of the 16 top-selling notebooks on the site were Chromebooks as of last week.
Sometimes Chromebooks do even better -- especially during the holiday shopping season. Late last year and early this year, as many as four of the five best-selling laptop models on Amazon.com were Chromebooks.
'HELPED US GET MORE EFFICIENT'
Agosto, a Minneapolis-based company that helps its corporate and education clients deploy Google technologies, has sold Chromebooks in the past few years and has seen sales rise.
Last year, it moved more than 20,000 Chromebooks collectively worth $5.3 million. In 2012, it sold only 5,000 Chromebooks.
Agosto set up Egan with Chromebooks. More than 200 of these are now in the field with another 50 or so heading out soon, Nonn said.
Egan workers use the Chromebooks for everything from word processing and number crunching to Google Hangouts video chats with tool-shop workers for training in the use of new equipment.
Chromebooks are such simple machines that "I was nervous at first about what I was going to be missing," Nonn said. But the "Chromebooks have really helped us get more efficient."
Chromebooks are popular for a range of reasons. They are dirt-cheap, often costing as little as $200, and sometimes less. They're fast, booting almost instantly in spite of their modest hardware specifications. They are easy to maintain, too, since they eschew a complicated operating system like Windows for one that is simple and virtually impervious to malware.
Chromebooks run on software known as Chrome OS, which is derived from Google's Chrome browser and therefore is mostly Web-focused. Those on Chromebooks don't fire up traditional software that is installed on the machines, but use Web-based alternatives.
Instead of Microsoft Word, say, they would use a Web-based Google Docs word processor. Figures wouldn't be entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet but the Web-based Google Sheets equivalent.
Egan Chromebook users do have access to Windows software, after a fashion. It's not running on the machine, but over the Internet in a "virtualized" fashion when it is needed, Nonn said.
A WEB-ENABLED 'BRICK'?
Chromebooks have their critics. Some ridicule the laptops as little more than hardware built around a browser, and insist that they're not "real computers."
Microsoft, seeing its near-monopoly on PC software challenged by this upstart platform, recently aimed one of its anti-Google "Scroogled" TV commercials at Chromebooks. Microsoft's argument: Because Chromebooks are so Web-dependent, they are "bricks" if they're not online -- essentially useless.
Instead, get a PC with Microsoft Office on it, the productivity-software publisher recommends in the spot.
Chromebook fans retort that few mobile computers are offline for extended periods in an age of all-but-ubiquitous Wi-Fi. Besides, Egan and other companies solve this problem by building high-speed cellular-data access into the Chromebooks they deploy to their mobile workers.
And a growing chorus of technology-industry heavyweights -- including some of Microsoft's own Windows allies -- are buying into Chromebook computing.
Meg Whitman, chief executive of the Windows-PC and Chromebook maker Hewlett-Packard, has begged to differ with HP's longtime Microsoft partner on Chromebooks' value and viability. HP sells several Chromebooks, including a well-received 11-inch model.
These are computers "the channel can't keep on the shelf," Whitman told a Morgan Stanley tech-conference audience not long ago. You can hear the event audio at bitly.com/whitmanchromebooks.
"Chromebooks have surprised us in the breadth of their appeal," Whitman said. "So we are going to follow that market there ... and provide customers what they are looking for. It does appear there are real legs to Chromebook in the small to-medium-size businesses and even the enterprise."
A COMPLEMENTARY TECHNOLOGY
Chromebooks come at a time when businesses are embracing a wider diversity of devices, Whitman said. Some corporate workers require high-powered workstations and some need only simple mobile gadgetry. Some need Windows compatibility and some can forgo such a capability.
Still, Chromebook advocates acknowledge the shortcomings. Few argue that the modest, sometimes-chintzy laptops will replace Windows PCs and Macs anytime soon -- and many do not even regard them as primary but only secondary machines, used in tandem with other computers.
Boardman, the St. Paul real estate agent, cannot do advanced photo editing on a Chromebook, so she uses her souped-up Apple iMac desktop. When wanting to show off a house on a computer screen, she always opts for her more-elegant iPad over the more-homely Chromebook.
She also uses a large Android-based Samsung smartphone for mobile computing.
"I'm not a fanboy" of any specific kind of technology, she emphasized.
Companies are now able to pick and choose precisely what computing hardware they need while saving money, said Whitman, noting that Chromebooks fit nicely into that ecosystem.
Such ecosystems now increasingly include Google Apps, the Google suite of work-related, domain-name-customized tools available in various forms to businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and school systems.
Google Apps include the Docs word processor, Sheets spreadsheet and Slides presentation maker along with Gmail and Google Calendar, plus a number of bells and whistles particular to businesses and not available to average consumers.
At organizations that have Google Apps deployed, integrating Chromebooks is a relatively painless process. At Egan, this chore was handed off to an intern, who never needed any help, Nonn said.
Google Apps is common in K-12 education around the Twin Cities and the state, laying the groundwork for a Chromebook influx. The notebooks, relatively rare in the local education sphere a year ago, are now being snapped up by the thousands for students.
This is an increasingly common scenario across the country. Chromebooks accounted for roughly 19 percent of mobile-computer purchases in the K-12 market, according to recent Futuresource Consulting findings (see bitly.com/fschromebooks). The figure was less than 1 percent in 2012, while PC purchases slid from 47.5 percent in 2012 to 28 percent during last year's third quarter.
AT HOME IN THE CLASSROOM
White Bear Lake Area Schools has deployed about 1,000 Chromebooks, which are working better than the painfully slow Windows-based "netbooks" it tried a few years ago, according to Mark Garrison, district director of technology.
The netbooks cost about $450 each at the time, but the district now can get Chromebooks meeting its requirements for about $230.
"I am surprised at how quickly the price has come down," Garrison said. "We'd like to see them get to $100 apiece."
About 1,500 Chromebooks are in use by students in Bloomington Public Schools, across elementary, middle school and high school grades. This compares with about 2,500 regular laptop and desktop computers currently in use, along with about 1,000 Apple iPad tablets.
Chromebooks should "predominate as we continue to replace laptops and desktops," said John Weisser, executive director of technology and information services. "It has been a good call, and we will continue to invest in the technology."
The iPad, often hailed as an ideal educational computer, isn't going away, Weisser and other Twin Cities educators emphasize, but the Chromebook also has a place because laptop-style machines with integrated keyboards work much better in many classroom scenarios.
About 3,000 Chromebooks are in use at Robbinsdale Area Schools, with another 1,500 tentatively slated for deployment, said Jacob Givand, the director of online learning and technology integration. The district had tried Windows-based netbooks, with disappointing results, he noted.
Chromebooks aren't as flashy as iPads, which is a good thing, according to Givand, since students fixate less on them and what is on their screens.
Edina Public Schools, another Chromebook-centric district, has a somewhat novel mix of 1,000 administration-owned Chromebooks for students, along with 1,200 student-owned Chromebooks authorized for use in the classroom.
Chromebooks are hardly the only district-approved choice for parents wanting to invest in school tech. Other options include Windows-based "ultrabooks" and Android-based tablets. But almost everyone goes for Chromebooks, said Michael Walker, the district's secondary technology integration specialist.
Some parents are puzzled by Chromebooks, and are often obsessed with having their kids use traditional technology like Microsoft's Office productivity software. But they come around when the newer technology -- including Google Apps as an Office replacement -- is explained to them, Walker said.
Meanwhile, businesses of every stripe around the country are embracing the Chromebook.
Checkmaid, a Philadelphia-based pest-control, home- and pool-cleaning company, has two call centers that recently switched to the machines.
"Chromebooks have been an amazing solution," said Alex Brola, Checkmaid president and co-founder. "They're affordable, very light, there's minimal administration needed, and they run everything we need" via the Web, including Dropbox and Google Docs.
"It's pretty much the perfect solution for inside sales and customer service," Brola added. "We couldn't find anything close to as convenient."
Scott Hill, who operates the Tennessee-based William & Hill business coaching and consulting firm out of his home, said he uses a "Chromebook exclusively for business every day.
"When anywhere other than my office, I use the Chromebook to conduct my entire business," said Hill, who leans heavily on Google Apps, makes phone calls over the Web via a service called Google Voice, and posts to his WordPress-based blog via a Web editor.
Public-relations strategist C.J. Pagano of the Missouri-based Clix online-marketing firm now uses Chromebooks in meetings and for presentations.
"Now we can walk into a boardroom with a sleek Chromebook, plug it in, and dazzle current and prospective clients alike," Pagano said. "The Chromebooks are a great complement to the other devices in the office, and offer advanced functionality. They truly are a game changer for us."
Houston Dynamic Displays, a Texas-based provider of digital outdoor signs and billboards, has gone Google in a big way.
"We use Google for our entire business operation in the cloud," said Hussain Ali, one of the company's top executives. "Most of us have Chromebooks."
Simply Bags, an online handbag retailer, is moving its warehouse workers from desktop computers to Chromebooks. The retailer hadn't focused on Chromebooks when mulling its migration to computers that provide mobility along with responsiveness and low cost, said company exec Bob Shirilla.
"Our business goal was not 'Chromebooks' but they were a pleasant surprise," Shirilla said. "We wanted all our documents in the cloud so they could be accessed from anywhere. Email had been a longtime problem and we focused on Gmail, another cloud solution.
"We like our new environment and love the speed and price of Chromebooks," Shirilla said.
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