The Pros and Cons of Web-Based Operating Systems

Tuesday Aug 30th 2011 by Ronald Pacchiano
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Do notebooks that rely on a Web-based OS -- like Google's Chromebook -- make sense for small business? We look at the benefits and the challenges of tying your PC to the cloud.

Web-based operating systems, such as Google’s Chrome OS, and new Chromebooks -- notebooks built around the Chrome OS -- have both received a lot of attention in the press. The question is do they make sense for small business?

If you haven’t heard of Chrome OS, then maybe you’re familiar with the Chrome Web browser? The Chrome OS is essentially a bootable version of the Chrome Web browser, and it replaces a traditional operating system like Windows.

Unlike most operating systems, Chrome OS stores all of a user’s applications and data on the Web, as opposed to a local hard drive. Although much more limiting then a traditional operating system, a browser-based OS offers huge advantages that can make it a compelling option for small businesses.  Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons. 

The Advantages of a Web-based OS

Chromebooks start up quickly -- in about 10 -15 seconds -- which is significantly faster than any Windows PC. Plus, their impressive battery life lets you work an entire day on a single charge. More importantly, Chromebooks practically eliminate time-consuming IT tasks such as building system images, troubleshooting small business software or spending hours cleaning virus-infected systems.

Moreover, with all of a user’s data and applications relegated to the cloud, employee responsibilities such as maintaining the latest virus definitions, updating software or even performing daily backups are now automatically managed by Google. And, since a computer with a browser-based OS stores everything on the Web, data loss due to damage or to a lost or stolen computer is all but eliminated.

In fact, moving to new hardware involves nothing more than turning on the new machine and logging in. No need to transfer data, reinstall applications or even wait for IT assistance.

What we find most attractive about this concept, though, is how cost effective it could be. Google -- making a hard push to get people to buy into the benefits of a browser-based OS -- claims that companies can reduce their total cost of ownership by up to 70 percent over traditional PCs.

To that end, Google is offering small businesses and non-profit organizations the capability to lease Chromebooks in bulk for $28 a month per user. Educational institutions receive an even better deal at only $20 a month.

That price includes tech support, rapid hardware replacement, automatic background updates, a Web-based management console for IT professionals (for managing users, apps, and policies), and a hardware refresh every three years. For many businesses, potential savings of that magnitude are hard to ignore and definitely bear further investigation.

In spite of how good a deal this might be, not everyone will or should transition to this platform (graphics designers, accountants and architects come to mind). But if your employees only need to browse the Web, access email, and use typical office applications like a word processor, spreadsheet or presentation software, then a browser-based OS like Chrome OS might work for your business.

Google estimates that most companies will be able to transition approximately 75 percent of their employees over to its platform. Additional applications are available via the Chrome App Store. And before you ask, yes Angry Birds is available.

The Downside of Web-Based OS

While a browser-based OS offers plenty of benefits, it's also hampered by severe limitations. Most notably: everything is stored in the cloud. If you're working from the office or your home, that's generally not a concern. However if you travel, accessing a reliable and fast broadband connection can be tricky. Many areas have dead zones, limited coverage and inconsistent throughput rates.

Complicating matters further, many wireless ISPs impose a data cap on their mobile broadband service. A computer that requires constant online access to transmit data or stream music and video could hit those caps very quickly. It wouldn’t be as troubling if you could work offline, but the majority of apps currently available for Chrome OS won’t work without a broadband connection. This makes working while traveling difficult or, in some cases, impossible. 

Other issues include the lack of proper VPN support, limited file management and some weird browser compatibility issues that prevent some websites from loading or functioning correctly. And, while the Chrome App Store offers a wide variety of apps, it's still rather limited. As a result, finding what you need can sometimes prove difficult.

Regardless of these shortcomings, the Chrome OS offers plenty of value. The best way to decide whether a browser-based OS is appropriate -- for all or part of your organization -- is to try one. Unfortunately, you can't download Google’s Chrome OS directly. However these alternatives will introduce you to the browser-based OS concept first hand.

Alternatives to Chrome OS

The Web-based OS that comes closest to Chrome OS is called, ironically enough, Chrome OS Linux. This version provides a lightweight Linux distribution, compatible with almost any x86 PC or notebook equipped with at least 256MB of RAM and a 1GB HD. It's highly representative of the experience you get working on a Chromebook.

Chrome OS Linux is available as a live CD; you can test it out on any computer without actually installing it. And, since Chrome OS Linux provides you with almost everything you get from a Chromebook, you can continue to use it on all of your existing systems without paying Google $28 a month for its hardware.

Other Web-based OSes offer similar functionality. Two of the most popular are Joli OS from Jolicloud and Splashtop OS. Unlike a Chromebook, however, both of these products are designed to be used as a supplement to Windows, not a replacement. You simply select which OS you’d like to use when the PC starts.

Installing either product is risk-free as only the installer runs in Windows, and it won’t affect your settings, files, applications or personal data. There could be some compatibility issues -- we discovered that Joli OS worked fine on our Dell Latitude D620, but not on our Dell Latitude e5400. Seems it didn’t support that particular network adapter.

Splashtop also had issues as it only officially supports about a dozen HP systems. However it worked fine on our Dell Latitude D620. Bottom line, you have nothing to lose by installing it on your system. It will either work or it won’t.

The last alternative is called Presto. Unlike the other OSes mentioned here, Presto can work offline. While we don't consider Presto a replacement for Windows the way Chrome OS is, it provides many of the same benefits.

In our test, we started Presto and got on the Web in less than 13 seconds. You can send email, IM clients and browse the Web via Firefox. And unlike Chrome OS, you can edit Office documents, listen to music or even watch videos offline. Presto also differs in that it's not a free application. You can try it free for 7 days, after that it will cost you $19.95.

Even though none of the operating systems we discussed here are as feature rich or flexible as your typical Windows PC, they each offer something of value. We recommend that you give each a closer look.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.

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