Many years ago it was an axiom that no-one got fired for buying IBM – they were the standard for desktop computing when the segment first emerged. With the ubiquitous presence of Microsoft operating systems on the IBM PC no-one even actively decided on buying MS-DOS and after that Microsoft Windows. The combination of IBM compatible PC and Microsoft Windows became the de-facto installation for every business user – it had the tools: word processing, spreadsheets, databases – all the things that the average business user required. As time has gone on the number of applications available on the Windows platform has expanded exponentially! Whatever you want to do there will be a Windows application to do it. This is still the case today, despite the creeping re-segmentation of the the personal computing market. What has changed?
Moore’s Law suggests that processing power will double or the size of processor will half approximately every two years. This means that we can now pack into a phone, or a watch something that is much more powerful than the first IBM compatible PCs. The bespoke software development that we run is orders of magnitude more complex and more capable than those first applications. But, with this increase in power has come bloat – lazy design and programming, the assumption of ever increasing power has led to behemoth like applications that struggle to run on even the latest hardware.
Back to the lean model
Something has to give, and give it has. The arrival of the smart phone has brought with it the acceptance that small specifically targeted applications (called apps, appropriately enough) work fine for most people most of the time. Even in the business environment most users never progress beyond email, internet and word processing. Why purchase a hugely more capable machine and leave it to do very little?
Google have addressed this gap in the market with their Chromebooks. These devices in some ways go back to basics – the operating system is much smaller than Windows now is. It is also limited in the features available. But, in other ways it is the device for the 21st century. The Chromebook is designed to work over the internet. The Google Apps for Business user simply has to log on to a Chromebook device to have his or her complete environment available instantly. Although the list of apps is smaller it does 100% of what most people do, which, for the business owner is a compelling statistic.
What about those custom business applications that run on Windows?
Of course, the million dollar question is what to do about that custom business database that’s been developed in MS Access or Visual Basic – surely it won’t run on a Chromebook? No, it won’t, but as more and more business applications are being moved to an extranet model this isn’t a show stopper. Web development is becoming more accessible to more businesses. If it’s accessible from the web a Chromebook is perfect. Even many long term Windows only applications such as accounting packages are being re-imagined for the web. Apart from extremely processor or disk intensive applications all the common business needs and more are available in the cloud.
Installation and set up hell
One of the most trying events for most small businesses is the installation of a new PC. First of all you have to try and decide on a suitable specification that doesn’t cost the earth. Then you need to decide whether to purchase Microsoft Office. Then you need to rummage in your cupboards for the installation media for all those other business critical applications that were purchased years ago – and cross you fingers that they will work with the latest incarnation of Windows. Then there’s the download of drivers and the set up of email, and, and.. you get the picture?
Now consider purchasing a machine and giving it to the user. Ask them to log in with their existing details. On log in their entire environment is available instantly as it was before!
The costs and considerations
Of course everything has a down side. This sort of cloud computing depends on an internet connection. If this goes down your machine is limited in usefulness, but then so are most PCs in the same conditions. Take your Chromebook home or to an internet cafe and carry on.
There are also ongoing costs on a per user basis for this sort of set up. But Windows servers also cost per user, and you have to maintain the hardware yourself. Particularly for the SME the benefits of not having to deal with hardware or server maintenance itself outweighs the costs. In real terms cloud computing is much cheaper than getting your own kit. The economies of scale mean that you will receive a much more reliable service at a greatly lower price point than if you tried to do it yourself.
One thing to consider is the long term safety of your data. If it’s in the cloud then it’s not physically with you. But there are ways of getting backups of your data, and this is worth doing if there is data without which your business could not function. But remember that cloud providers have superior resources and working backup and restore processes – how many SMEs have even prepared a disaster recovery plan?
This isn’t a spur of the moment type of decision, but it is worth considering. If you have some cloud services, or have already signed up for Google Apps for Business then it’s incredibly easy to dip a toe in the water. If you’ve been using Windows for the last 20 years it may give you more food for thought, but look at your current IT licensing costs, email provider quality and fees and consider if a move to the cloud is a good match for your business. Whatever the size of your organisation it’s definitely time to consider a Chromebook.