Windows apps to run on Chromebooks
It's the low-cost computing option popular with school students and a growing number of businesses - the Chromebook.
It was conceived by Google as an alternative to Windows-based laptops, with a stripped-down operating system in Chrome OS, a limited app ecosystem and a browser-centric approach, where Google's productivity suite, including Gmail, Google Docs and Sheets run through the Chrome web browser.
But Covid-19 has shown some of the deficiencies in Chromebooks as millions of employees take them home to resume work.
"The features and benefits of Chrome OS that we used to think were additive suddenly became mandatory and business-critical," wrote John Solomon, Google's vice president of the Chrome OS operating system on the Google Chrome Enterprise blog, earlier this week.
The answer? Embrace Windows apps in a way that would have been inconceivable a year ago. From September, Google will introduce the ability to run native Windows apps on Chromebooks through a partnership with Parallels, a company that won prominence for its software that allows Windows apps to run on Mac computers.
"Our new partnership with Parallels brings legacy application support, which includes Microsoft Office desktop apps, to Chromebooks," explained Solomon.
Windows users had previously been able to access Windows apps from a Chromebook, but only via the Parallels Remote Access Server option, which virtualises those apps on the computer, is reliant on internet access and has been criticised for its poor performance. Another service Crossover, does a similar thing, but has similar limitations.
Google has confirmed that Windows apps, including the productivity apps millions of office workers use every day, Word, Powerpoint and Excel, will reside on the Chromebook and run "natively".
Solomon pointed out that Chromebook sales in the US have grown 109 per cent in the last year, showing appetite is strong for the laptops, which are made by a variety of hardware vendors and typically sell here for between $350 and $600. Many of them were hastily deployed to school children during lockdown, to allow kids to use the suite of Google Apps from home.
Local education IT service companies also report an uptick in the use of Classroom, Google's free platform to help teachers issue and mark assignments and allow collaboration on classwork.
The move with Parallels does raise a couple of questions around performance and licensing. With lower hardware specifications to keep the cost down, will Windows apps run effectively on Chromebooks that are not optimised to run them? What will the impact on battery life be?
Will organisations be able to use their existing Office 365 licences to run the apps on Chromebooks? What will Parallels charge for making it possible?
There are a lot of unanswered questions. But one thing is for sure - enterprise customers that previously wouldn't have considered deploying a fleet of Chromebooks may now consider doing so knowing that legacy Windows apps their workers need can be run on them.
It's a move that seems to have more upside for Google than Microsoft, but also reflects the fact that Microsoft needs to stay relevant as lighter operating systems and low-cost devices gain acceptance.
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