Google Wielding Virtualization In Chromebook War With Windows

Google's partnerships with Citrix and VMware, which are both building virtualization tools that allow business applications to run on Chromebooks, are the clearest sign yet that it's serious about taking a bite out of Windows in the enterprise.

Citrix is working on Receiver For Chrome, a new version of its desktop virtualization software that runs in the browser and lets customers run their Windows applications on Chromebooks via the cloud. It's currently in beta and slated for launch this summer. VMware is building a similar version of VMware View that does the same thing, but the company hasn't yet offered a launch time frame.

Google has been trying, with sporadic success, to peck away at Microsoft Office with its Google Apps For Enterprise product. But despite some high profile wins, Google can't be seen as more than a theoretical threat to the Office monolith, a small annoyance with the potential to grow into a larger one down the road.

However, some virtualization experts say partnering with established enterprise players like Citrix and VMware could enable Google to start creating real problems for Microsoft in the near term.

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"Virtualization will give Chromebook users access to a Windows desktop and a mechanism for using their Windows apps and legacy apps without having to reprogram everything for the cloud," said Allen Falcon, CEO of Horizon Info Services, a Westborough, Mass.-based Google reseller. "This is going to make Chromebooks an attractive option for businesses."

Chromebooks are Google's bid to remake the notebook PC with cloud computing oozing figuratively from every port. The first models, from Samsung and Acer, are priced in the $400 range and will be sold as part of a Google subscription offering that includes Web-based management console, automatic updates, warranty, support, and hardware lifecycle upgrades. For $28 per user monthly, businesses can say goodbye to Windows and its associated cost and management overhead, says Google.

Microsoft, naturally, could barely stifle a yawn in the wake of the Chromebook launch. In its long running battle with Google, Microsoft's go-to jab has been to call out its rival's lack of enterprise experience. Its message to Google goes something like this: Step aside, kids, and let the adults handle this market, as only we can fully grasp the gravitas of dealing with enterprise customers.

That's not to say Microsoft isn't vulnerable. Most organizations rely to some extent on Windows applications, but the licensing costs associated with accessing virtualized Windows desktops and Microsoft Office applications outside the corporate firewall pose problems for some, says Steve Kaplan, vice president of data center virtualization practices at INX, a Dallas Texas-based solution provider.

Microsoft charges $100 per device annually for its Virtual Desktop Access license (VDA), a price point Kaplan believes could cause many customers to look seriously at Chromebooks as an alternative.

"I think Chromebooks are going to put some competitive pressure on Windows OS and related products," Kaplan said. "Because most organizations are Windows based today, they're using PC-over-IP or Citrix ICA to connect to Windows 7 desktops. But as they get used to it and find other alternatives like Zimbra, Sliderocket and Google Apps, that could pose a threat to Microsoft."

Next: Google Goes For The Windows Jugular

At Google I/O in mid-May, Dave Girouard, president of Google's enterprise business, said Chromebooks represent Google's effort to fix a Windows desktop computing model that has been broken for quite some time and is in need of an overhaul. "This may be bigger than the Google Apps launch," Girouard said of Chromebooks. "It may more impactful for people that need to run IT in a business."

Google has long touted the advantages of cloud infrastructure over on-premise, and it believes that adding virtualization to the mix will multiply these advantages. Most companies can switch 75 percent of their users to Chromebooks today by using Web applications and virtualization, Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, said at I/O.

Tony Safoian, CEO of SADA Systems, a North Hollywood cloud solution provider that partners with both Google and Microsoft, says virtualization provides the bridge necessary for Windows based organizations to at least consider moving some of their users to Chromebooks.

"The ability to terminal into any type of application will make Chromebooks even more compelling. It definitely seems like Google is going for the jugular," Safoian said.

For Microsoft, the danger isn’t that Chromebooks will replace PCs outright. That's not going to happen. What could happen, according to Safoian, is that limited Chromebook deployments could grow into larger ones once organizations become comfortable with the idea of running their business on software that doesn't come from Microsoft.

"Windows is really the core that all other Microsoft apps need to run. If you're allowing users to run their computer on something other than Windows, they're going to be less likely to run Office, CRM, and Sharepoint. It's a domino effect," said Safoian.

Boca Raton, Fla.-based solution provider Champion Solutions Group has an Exchange practice, sells Office 365 and increasingly finds itself running into Google in the state and local government space. While this isn't yet happening in the enterprise, Chris Pyle, president and CEO, doesn't rule it out.

"If you told me four or five years ago that I'd be competing with Google I'd have said you were crazy. But Google has a lot of momentum and is definitely a force to be reckoned with," he said.

Champion Solutions Group has a "massive pipeline" for virtual desktops, says Pyle, and 60 percent of its customer base is planning to use VDI to migrate to Windows 7. With Chromebooks on the horizon, and virtualization providing a bridge to enterprise apps, customers will have another option to consider.

"Google coming out with an alternative path to Windows 7 could make things really interesting," said Pyle. "They're not an enterprise company, but partnering with Citrix and VMware is a shrewd move on Google's part."

Google is embracing virtualization in a way it hasn't done previously, and that could help propel further into the enterprise. But in the opinion of Mike Strohl, president of Entisys, a Concord, Calif.-based virtualization VAR, this isn't so much a technology-motivated move as it is one designed to give customers flexibility.

The word "flexibility" is one of the marketing mantras of enterprise IT vendors, and now Google will get to add it to its vocabulary. "The reality is that people want to be able to get access to their resources -- I don't even call them applications anymore, just straight resources -- from whatever it is they're using," said Strohl. "This isn't just about Chromebooks, but the diversity of devices that continue to show up in the workplace."