Are Chromebooks Really Channel-Friendly?

Lenovo is releasing a ruggedized Google Chromebook purpose-built for the lucrative education market, a segment that’s traditionally channel friendly. The new Chrome ThinkPad shows the growing appeal of Google’s alternative operating system and sales model, but it also raises questions about the Chrome ecosystem’s channel-friendliness.

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lenovo-chromebook-1000Could Windows finally have real competition? For that matter, is Apple’s lock on the classroom now broken? Perhaps, now that Lenovo is adopting Google Chrome for a new ultrabook built specifically for the lucrative education market.

Last week, Lenovo announced forthcoming availability of the ThinkPad X131e, a ruggedized notebook computer running Chrome and sold under the Google subscription model. Lenovo plans to market the 11.6-inch machine with reinforced corners and rubber cover to school systems, universities and students at the starting price of $429 starting Feb. 26.

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“The ThinkPad X131e has proven to be very successful in education environments,” said Jerry Paradise, executive director of product marketing, ThinkPad Product Group, in a statement. “With the rugged features we added to the X131e, we’ve seen reduced failure rates in the field. This is a huge benefit to schools and students. We’re pleased to be able to offer this hardened ThinkPad Chromebook as a great computer for schools.”

Lenovo and Google tout the technical specifications and support options for the ThinkPad X131e, saying it’s perfect for the abusive classroom and campus environments. Its battery life of 6.5 hours should give students plenty of juice with normal operations. And Chromebooks can be administered through the Chrome management console or and support is available from Google for the one-time cost of $30 per device.

According to Google, more than 1,000 schools are already using the Chromebooks.

“Like all Chromebooks, the ThinkPad Chromebook delivers a simple computing experience with built-in security and automatic updates. It’s a fast computer that’s easy to share among multiple students with Google Apps for Education, and it includes over a thousand web-based educational apps from the Chrome Web Store,” Google wrote in its Enterprise blog.

Just how the ThinkPad Chromebook is being sold remains a bit of a question. Lenovo did not replied to requests for clarification. The Google and Lenovo announcements say the units will be sold under the Google subscription license, which means school systems will have to pay an annual support fee for security, maintenance and updates.

Google is now actively marketing Chromebooks made by Acer and Samsung to business customers, hoping to expand the footprint of the fledging operating system. While Google likes to talk about being a channel-friendly company, the Chromebook for Business sales model doesn’t necessarily involve traditional solution providers.

Channelnomics tested the Chromebooks for Business sales model by inquiring about a small business purchase, which required talking directly with a Google Enterprise sales rep. Google’s model is simple: You buy Chromebooks from a direct resellers, such as Amazon or Best Buy, and then purchase the operating system subscription, which includes access to a raft of productivity apps, such as Google Apps and Gmail for Business.

The model is elegantly simply and transparent compared to the Microsoft Windows model. With Windows, businesses have to buy licenses and maintenance packages, which grant them access to updates and discounts for periodic upgrades. The Google model provides maintenance and management support; gone is the traditional upgrade cycle; as new versions and fixes are constantly streamed to the endpoint.

When Channelnomics asked for specifics on how to purchase Chromebooks for business, we were told, “While we do sell the devices [with] the licenses, we also sell the licenses separately as well.  Right now we do not have stock for any of the Chromebooks and are referring customers to purchase from one of the consumer channels, and just add the license on separately from us.”

Lenovo did not respond to requests for comment. Its ThinkPad 131e announcement says “Interested K-12 institutions should contact their Lenovo Sales Representative.” Historically, public and private schools buy from local resellers, so it’s possible that Lenovo will filter sales inquiries to partners. The process, though, remains unclear.

Since the first Chromebook hit the market in June 2011, Google has been coy about its plans for introducing the PC to the business channel. Initially, Google said it wanted to shake out the sales model through the consumer channel before releasing the devices for B2B sales. However, Google continues to sell mostly through volume and retail resellers.

In recent interviews, Acer told Channelnomics solution providers are expressing increasing interest in carrying and supporting Chromebooks. However, Acer has no immediate plans for expanding Chromebook sales to B2B resellers.

Despite lackluster sales, Google and its manufacturing partners appear committed to supporting Chrome as an alternative to Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac. Acer and Samsung have released new Chromebook models, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lenovo release non-education versions later in 2013. If Google is intent on expanding market share, the Chromebook and its direct management support and application sales model could prove disruptive to the traditional VAR PC sales as well as endpoint managed services.

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