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Even though only a few people have had their hands on Google's new Chromebooks, we've heard all sorts of opinions about whether or not the new cloud-only devices will be a good deal or DOA when they're officially available this summer.

There's also been some confusion about the Chromebook offerings, in part because rumors of student rentals published prior to Google's announcement mischaracterized the way in which that program will actually work. (It's not going to be the educational discount whereby students show a School ID in order to get cheaper hardware; it's a contract agreement with the institution -- a three year contract -- to rent the devices.)

Whether people choose to buy Chromebooks outright or whether schools offer them for rent, the question still remains: will students actually adopt Chromebooks?

According to Inside Higher Ed's Joshua Kim, in order for Chromebooks to have any hope in the education market, it will require "a Google LMS if Google hopes to significantly displace Microsoft or Apple in higher ed." I'm not sure I agree. Neither Apple nor Microsoft have an LMS integrated with their operating systems. And I really don't see the LMS as the linchpin here.

The linchpin, I believe, is the availability of Web apps. And that's what might cause Google to fail.

For Google's cloud-based OS to work for the vast majority of college students, they'll need to be able to access the tools they need via the browser. That'll be a challenge for a lot of college students (less so for the K-12 crowd, many of whom are already adapt at "life inside the browser" -- and honestly, I think that's really the target market for Chromebooks).

It's a matter of mindset. But it's a matter of app availability as well.

That's not to say that the devices and their cloud-based OS won't work for most college students' needs, particularly as universities build out better virtualization options for discipline-specific software that was once found only in computer labs. But a lot of Web apps feel like also-rans to their downloaded equivalents. I'm looking at the list of apps I have open right now on my Mac and i know it'd be a struggle for me to move away from the downloaded versions of TweetDeck, Evernote, Skype, and Steam -- some of which do have Web versions; some don't.

Despite my reliance on these downloaded apps, I am moving closer to a Web-only world myself, and I certainly haven't touched Microsoft Office in well over a year. (So please, don't tell me students won't use Google Apps because they need Office so they can submit essays as .doc's. Google Docs lets you export files into that format.)

But even if the Web apps students need are available by the beginning of the school year, that's just part of the battle. There are a number of educational websites that just don't work with Chrome That might include the LMSes that Joshua Kim frets about -- I don't know. But it definitely includes FAFSA. And let me tell ya, not being able to submit financial aid requests on your Chromebook will be a big stumbling block for Google.

So it isn't just a matter of the Chromebook being ready for students. It's a matter of the Web and the Chrome Web Store being ready. Can Google get those pieces in place by the Fall?

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Audrey Watters


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