Are banks ready to trade in their traditional Windows laptops for beefed-up Internet devices? Not yet, early results suggest.
Google and its partners recently announced that Chrome laptops, which in the past have been sold to consumers, are now ready for the workplace. They're made of tougher materials and now support popular desktop virtualization systems from Citrix and VMware, allowing even old applications to run on the devices. As proof of enterprise-worthiness, Google said Netflix and Starbucks are deploying Chrome notebooks.
A primary selling point is pricing. The flagship device, the Dell Chromebook 13, starts at $399. This could appeal to the many banks reducing their hardware budgets: in a recent American Banker survey of 50 bank chief information officers, 56% said they plan to decrease spending on desktops in 2016.
Yet bank technology executives say they don't feel ready for Chrome-based laptops.
At Bank of the West, chief technology officer Jeremy Lamb wouldn't rule out Chromebooks for future virtual desktop projects. He recognizes the improvements Google has made in its laptop operating system.
"I think it's a step forward for Google to be able to support Citrix and VMware; it's a clever piece of marketing to say that makes them enterprise ready," he said. "The price point of the Chromebooks is quite attractive, if everything you need is in the cloud."
But he's more interested in other, more familiar notebooks, including Microsoft Surface.
"The Surface is lightweight and has touch screen capability; I've been playing with the Windows 10 Surface," Lamb said. "Our reliance on Microsoft Office is there. We never embraced Google Docs." Surface's ability to easily integrate with the bank's computer environment is a key consideration.
Bank of the West is looking at several notebooks and tablets for business groups that work with customers and like to use traditional applications on a tablet, he said.
The $76 billion-asset bank, based in San Francisco, might also provide notebooks for employees who telecommute the idea of deploying zero-client devices that require little to no patching and support is appealing.
But to consider a deployment of Chromebooks, security staff would have to investigate the Chrome operating system and the IT department would have to familiarize themselves with it and test it, Lamb said.
Needham Bank in Massachusetts has tested Chromebooks in the past. "While they are inexpensive and interesting, the Chrome OS and lack of third-party support in terms of apps, Java, and plug-ins limited their business utility to plain-vanilla websites," said James Gordon, senior vice president of information technology at the $1.7 billion-asset community bank. "Which is fine until you hit a mission-critical site that won't work or render properly."
Chrome won't be business-ready until Google can persuade app developers to write for it, at a time when they're already supporting Windows, iOS, OSX, Java, Flash, Silverlight, and HTML5, Gordon said.
Microsoft, meanwhile, "appears to have woken from its five-year slumber" and is getting more serious about hardware, security, price and performance.
"I think this race just got interesting," he said.
First Tennessee, the main operating unit of the $26 billion-asset First Horizon in Memphis, is similarly uninterested in Chromebooks, according to chief technology officer Bruce Livesay.
"Most of our software solutions are vendor-provided and require more than a browser to work properly," Livesay said. "In many instances there are peripherals that need to be connected to the workstations and there are limitations with the Chrome OS and peripheral support."
Another issue for banks is that they're not heavy users of web applications yet. The original premise of Chromebook was to create a low-cost device for using such applications.
Google took the Linux open-source operating system and stripped it of all components not needed to run web apps, so it could run with minimal memory, disk space and computing power.
"That's the secret sauce in getting the Chromebook to become a couple hundred dollars versus a couple thousand dollars," said James O'Neill, a senior analyst at Celent.
In streamlining Linux, Google was able to close some of the backdoors a hacker might exploit on a server running a full copy of the operating system. And theoretically the data is safer because it's not being stored on the laptop.
Yet Chromebook remains primarily a vehicle for using web applications.
"This goes back to the whole cloud computing conundrum that banks have," O'Neill said. While they're interested in the lower costs and potentially lower security risk of cloud applications, they have yet to embrace the cloud computing paradigm. "I predict this will happen eventually, but it's not there yet in terms of widespread adoption," he said.
The Case for Chromebook
To the concern that banks use non-browser-based software, a Google representative responded that many software vendors now build for the web, including Salesforce, SAP and Workday.
And any older application, even those written in COBOL, Fortran or Java, can run on Chrome, using the supported virtualization software from Citrix, VMware, Dell or Ericom.
To bankers' objection about Chrome's lack of support for Java and plug-ins, the Google rep noted that Chrome does support some third-party extensions and newer plug-ins. It does not support some older plug-ins, in part due to security concerns.
John Russell, Chromebook and thin client/VDI product manager at Dell, noted that where banks already have employees using a virtual desktop such as VMware View or Citrix XenDesktop, a Chrome-based device would make sense.
"For those users the knowledge workers, the traders we see growing interest in Chrome, since it's using Citrix to deliver their workspace, desktop or application, and nothing else resides on the device." A benefit of a Chrome-only device, he said, is that if it's lost or stolen, there's nothing to worry about.
For those who need to run Windows or other apps or "weird peripherals" locally, Chromebook might not be right, he acknowledged.
The other scenario where a Chrome device makes sense is where employees naturally use web-based applications like Salesforce or Google Apps. Interns, short-term workers, and contractors all fall into this category, he said.