Let’s *not* let them (NZ government workers) use Chromebooks

Technology journalist Bill Bennett muses in a post from a year ago titled “Let them (NZ government workers) use Chromebooks” about the potential cost savings and productivity gains to theoretically be had from deploying the Google office productivity stack for NZ government workers. Some excerpts:

“Put aside for a moment the security risks and the NZ$2 million paid to Microsoft for extra [Windows XP] support… One solution would be to write off all the existing computers and replace them with Chromebooks… There would be immediate savings. Chromebooks can’t run Microsoft Office. Government departments can shift to Google Apps… Getting all government employees and applications into the cloud means there will never again be a situation like 40,000 computers using out of date software.”

The security risks and $2 million dollar figure can be viewed as part of the exit cost of adopting the Microsoft platform to begin with. 13 years ago there may have been a reasonable case for Windows XP being an adequate desktop solution, which is clearly no longer the case in 2015. However, suggesting that NZ government trades one proprietary ecosystem (Microsoft) for one even more closed is not an advance at all. From a technology perspective, Google Apps for instance is completely welded shut – with a non-standard and entirely Google-secret document format at its core.

Yes, there’s a strong case to be made for the combined benefits of moving computing services off the Microsoft desktop platform and onto a Linux-based OS (Chrome OS is but one example, Ubuntu is another), replacing full desktop computers with thin clients, and adopting cloud-hosted applications. However, I would seriously question the wisdom of government migrating to a platform so tightly controlled by a single vendor – not to mention one that derives ~90 percent of its total global revenue from advertising, or that has a long track record of startlingly short product lifespans. It would drastically curtail competitive supplier choice, and in the case of Google Apps (and to an extent Chrome OS), eliminate the freedom to self-host the technology in-house or via a third party as and when the situation or requirement arises.

The $2 million dollar figure for Microsoft’s extended Windows XP support might well pale in comparison to migrating off a proprietary, cloud-only solution 13 years from now. The point being, any serious discussion must take into account exit costs, and not simply the superficial low cost of entry, be it Office 365, Chrome OS, Chromebooks, and so forth. This is an aspect Bill Bennett’s article omits, much like most other opinion pieces on the matter.

Apropos of this, in the time since the source article was written, the reasons for the UK government mandating ODF for document interchange (to the detriment of both Microsoft and Google) makes for worthwhile reading.


2 thoughts on “Let’s *not* let them (NZ government workers) use Chromebooks

  1. Bill Bennett

    Even though I wrote the original, I largely agree with where you are going with this idea.

    My original intent was to open up discussion in this way.

    You are right to be suspicious of Google and the advertising-funded business model. Deep down I worry that Google will abandon Google Apps for Business just as it has abandoned other non-core products and services. If it doesn’t dump the software, it may tighten the screws in some other way.

    And yes, moving to a fully open source OS makes sense, although I doubt New Zealand’s government is sophisticated enough to go that far. Rightly or wrongly the choices will come down to offerings from large corporations with big marketing and lobbying budgets.

    Assuming we can rule out Apple and already see the limits of Microsoft that only leaves Google unless one of the major IT brands, say HP or IBM, starts pushing a fully open alternative at government.


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