Seven Questions for Rajen Sheth, Who Wants To Put Chrome OS on Your Desktop

Published on April 25, 2011
by Arik Hesseldahl

There’s something about Rajen Sheth that makes him want to attack seemingly immovable objects. Five years ago, who would have thought there was any point to offering an alternative to the one thing that everyone has installed on their workplace PC, whether it’s running Windows or Mac OS: Microsoft Office.

When he first joined Google nearly seven years ago to start its enterprise division, Gmail was barely out of the gate and Blogger was the search giant’s most notable acquisition. What could Google offer enterprises that they weren’t already getting from Microsoft and Oracle and IBM and scores of other established software and hardware vendors?

The answer? An alternative. Sheth pitched Google’s trio of senior executives–Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin–on the idea of experimenting with standard office applications–a word processor, a spreadsheet–that operated entirely within a browser. The product evolved into Google Apps, and while Microsoft Office still dominates the enterprise desktop, it’s widely accepted that Google Apps has made some important inroads against it: 3 million businesses use it in some way, and some 30 million people use it in their businesses.

Aside from the scores of companies, governments and non-profits that have adopted it, there are millions of college students using it, attracted by the zero-dollar price tag. Microsoft has responded with its own cloud-based office offering, Office 365, but its clear that Redmond’s traditional grip on the enterprise desktop isn’t quite as tight as it once was.

Now Sheth has an even bigger target in mind. If Office isn’t so sacred, why does Windows have to be? As the Group Product Manager Chrome OS for Business, he makes an interesting argument that the Redmond-centric world of corporate desktops is quietly nursing a desire for change. Where will it come from? A combination of cloud computing, and a desktop that’s stripped down to nothing but a browser. I talked with Sheth by phone earlier this month and my first question was about his education.

NewEnterprise: You did your undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, but now you work in software. Circuit design wasn’t for you?

I realized I liked software a lot more than hardware. But I was most of the way through with electrical engineering at Stanford. So I did my masters in software.

Does having been educated first on hardware give you a different perspective on any of the work you’re doing at Google?

It is actually relevant. A lot of what I’ve done involves software and user-facing interfaces, but it also involves a lot of infrastructure. When you look at VMWare, which is where I worked before Google, it’s about what you can do with a combination of hardware and software and change the game. It’s similar with Google Apps. It’s a big set of user-facing applications, but the big thing is the cloud computing infrastructure that’s underneath. The fundamental question is about how you wire computers together in the most efficient way possible. That is really the bread and butter underneath Google Apps. And finally with Chrome OS it’s the same question: What can you do to the form factor of the hardware if you’re really only running a browser on it. The background in hardware has served me well.

So you joined Google about seven years ago with the mission of creating something–you basically had a blank sheet of paper–that Google could offer the enterprise. And your first idea got shot down. What was it?

At the time I joined Google the enterprise division was literally 25 people. We had a few engineers and salespeople, and we brought in a manager, Dave Girouard. I came in with the explicit mission of starting something else within Google that was to be aimed at businesses. And that something else was completely undefined. When I was still at VMware, a friend sent me a Gmail invite, and I started using it, and it was better than my corporate mail. I thought it could be a very interesting enterprise product. After I joined, I pitched Eric, Larry and Sergey on the idea of putting Gmail into an appliance and shipping it out to corporations. They didn’t go for it. I went back six months later, with some new insight, specifically that we could use our server architecture to make it easier for businesses and educational institutions to deploy and manage email, and that from there we could move up-market to deploy applications. We got exactly one engineer to work on that.

It was very much like running a start-up. I was the product manager and was tasked with starting this new business and we went through all the classic things that a start-up does. Building the product, building the team, selling the vision to an early set of adopters–San Jose City College was our first college customer and Northwestern and Arizona State followed after that. We started small and incubated it within Google. We did a lot of experimenting with that small team to see what was viable and eventually we were able to get more resources to make it bigger.

So how does the Google Apps experience compare to your new role in building a business around Chrome OS for businesses?

It’s very similar. In Chrome OS I’m back in start-up mode. Essentially I’m trying to build a vision. We have a small team of people that all sit together in one area, building out the business model, and we’re trying to start small and grow from there. One way to look at Google is as a closed confederation of start-ups. All these teams are empowered to build something that is visionary. But we all have a lot of leverage behind us, and so we’re able to do a lot more than we ever would have been able to do if we were a small company.

I see a potential problem there: Don’t all these start-ups within Google run the risk of creating independent silos or fiefdoms that aren’t all on the same page? We hear a lot of criticism of the silos at companies like Sony or even Microsoft. Even at Google, there’s Google Voice, which is a great product but doesn’t really fit with anything else, though I understand it eventually will. But how do you avoid this silo problem?

It’s a great question, and its something we’ve thought about a lot. There are basically two extremes. The first extreme is on one hand you have different teams doing things completely different from each other. The other extreme requires that everything be integrated extremely well together. We tried to find a happy medium. The benefit for one is that you can move quickly. But if you do the other extreme, you slow down innovation. Your project may take several times longer. One big advantage is the Google infrastructure is all there. You don’t have to think about user authentication or how to store files. That’s all done for you, so everyone is using the same infrastructure. A lot of the parts you need are there and you just build on top of them. You can never strike a perfect balance, but we think ours is pretty good.

So what’s your mission with the Chrome OS?

My mission is to bring Chrome to business and to ask how we make it something that can reshape the enterprise desktop. The thing that was really intriguing for me, is that cloud computing has done so much for businesses. You don’t need to think about deploying the hardware, you can just turn things on. You don’t need to worry about massive up-front payments for hardware, you can just pay monthly for what you use. And your applications just keep getting better. In my mind the cloud really stops at the desktop.

The desktop is tremendously hard to manage. It costs a lot to maintain, most of the cost for a business is all in the maintenance. It doesn’t get better over time, it gets slower as you use it. I think there’s a huge opportunity to bring the principles of cloud computing to the desktop. It gets better, and it’s fast and secure. That’s the vision. We think we can do that because we have a unique operating system. It’s just a browser that’s completely stateless. As a result of that, you can boot up in 5 to 10 seconds. And no matter where you go, you log in, you have your entire desktop. If the system breaks, that’s not a problem, you just jump on to another system. If you lose it, it’s not a problem because its stateless.

There are people who would say its crazy to try and dislodge Windows as the operating system of choice for businesses, and yet you think you can do it. What kind of results have you seen so far?

If you just have a browser and take out everything else, life gets a lot simpler. And this is why I think that the desktop OS is ready for a radical change much like the enterprise applications were a few years ago. One thing we’ve found is that very significant portions of the population are using only a browser right now. Those trends show that this area is ripe for a change. If you look down the line in three years, the majority of those business users will use only a browser. We created this pilot device called the Cr48, which is a notebook with Chrome OS installed on it. We received 50,000 applications from businesses interested in trying it, and we now have thousands deployed in the field. We have companies like Intercontinental Hotel Group, Virgin American and Groupon using them for different things. We’ve even heard from the US Army Intelligence Office. We heard from a lot of companies we didn’t expect interest from.

I think you’ll see some early adopters, groups of users within companies, this year. Some companies’ pilot programs want to do large roll-outs to call centers and to customer service reps and some want to roll them out to mobile sales people. Many will find that it makes sense to them because it brings the cost down. No one wants to pay to have to fix a system that’s broken because two applications are in conflict with each other. No one wants to pay to go patch an operating system. That kind of thing is going to become a lot easier with Chrome OS.

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