When Google unveiled the Chromebook in May, Sergey Brin, its co-founder, described it as “a new model of computing”.
And yet, the Chromebook is a mere laptop, a breed of computer which tablet PCs and smartphones are rendering, if not yet obsolete, then certainly ungainly and ill-suited to surfing the web.
But Brin wasn’t referring to the physical interface. Rather, Google’s new device, which is manufactured by Samsung and Acer, purports to be the first hardware purpose-built for using applications and storing data exclusively through the internet.
With just 16 gigabytes of hard-disk space to act as a fall-back cachet in case of connection failure, the Chromebook’s raison d'être is to enable users to do their computing entirely through a web browser (in this case, Chrome, of course).
The concept of delivering software and services over a network rather than a computer dates back to the 1960s, when American computer scientist John McCarthy speculated that "computation may someday be organised as a public utility". But it’s only in the last few years that broadband speeds have become fast enough to make computing through a browser truly viable.
Google is gambling – and sales figures are yet to be published – that the world is ready for a paradigm shift in how they use software and store data.
You don’t have to buy a software licence to use cloud-based services; you just pay for your own usage, so it’s generally cheaper
David Mytton, Boxed Ice founder
In truth, a number of cloud-service providers already provide ‘software-as-a-service’ (SaaS) to growing numbers of businesses. According to a survey by Cable&Wireless Worldwide, 45% of multinationals have adopted third-party-hosted cloud services in the past year, rising from 28% the year before.
Data management, including security, storage and data backup, was the most commonly used service (by 51%), followed by networking services (48%).
David Mytton, founder of Boxed Ice, a software developer whose first product monitors the performance of cloud-based servers, outlines the advantages of SaaS: “You pay a service fee and everything is maintained and managed by the server provider. You don’t have to manage software updates or any other infrastructure.
“You can get going a lot faster and because you pay monthly, you’re not tied into any contracts, so there is less initial capital outlay. You don’t have to buy a software licence; you just pay for your own usage, so it’s generally cheaper.”
Outsourcing the management of software and data, businesses can focus on their core competencies and enjoy greater flexibility – much the same advantages that fuelled the rise of other B2B services, such as recruitment, PR and marketing. Paying monthly fees to a cloud-services provider, which centrally manages and upgrades software and data on behalf of dozens or hundreds of customers, is hugely more cost-effective for a business than maintaining its own, internal IT infrastructure.
But will this de facto consolidation of IT maintenance spell disaster for an industry that has mushroomed throughout the still-nascent information age? Technological leaps forward have often brought an unwanted corollary: redundancies.
Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper group, News International, marginalised the striking printing unions in in 1986, for example, with the clandestine establishment of new printing presses, which reduced labour demands. Similarly, the reason SaaS is so much cheaper is because labour costs are reduced.
Google’s Chromebook could certainly be the nemesis of the multibillion dollar security industry based around providing antivirus protection for Windows. Google claims that Chrome OS, the operation system, is virus-free because it runs a self-check called Verified Boot upon boot up, which can detect and repair software corruption.