Google will begin renting laptop computers for $20 per month, a senior Google executive told Forbes. The laptops will run Google's Chrome OS, a computer operating system that does away with local storage and applications in favor of a Web browser...and only a Web browser. The browser, of course, is Google Chrome. Initially, the $20/month laptop package will only be offered to students, the report states, but it is surely a precursor to Google's greater ambitions, in both educational institutions and the enterprise.

What's the Deal?

The laptops' price includes both the hardware and the accompanying online services, the Forbes article states. These services include Google's Web-based alternatives to Microsoft's desktop offerings: Gmail instead of Outlook, Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office, and so on. It will also include things like online calendaring, collaboration tools, instant messaging and more, although the article doesn't go into detail on the exact services bundled with the deal.

At present, Google offers schools and universities a free and ad-free version of its Google Apps software to educational institutions directly, which can be then used by students and faculty alike. While a number of schools have signed up for these services, as evidenced by the numerous case studies featured on Google's website, many still have chosen Microsoft's Live@Edu solution instead, or something else entirely.

The $20/month program for student laptops gives Google a backdoor into schools, and also in the mass adoption of its services. Working the disruptive, flying under-I.T.'s-radar angle comes naturally to Google, which has, for years, pushed employees to use its products and services without I.T.'s knowledge or consent.

Update!!: Google has now announced its Chromebook educational program, officially. And from the sound of it, the new program uses the "front door", not the "back door," as we speculated earlier (see below). Or, in other words, the rest of the post is now just outdated, inaccurate crystal ball-gazing.

Thank goodness for the Web and the ability to update a post!

Nevertheless, Chromebooks for Education is an interesting program, but it sounds like the computers will only be offered to the institutions themselves, and not directly to students. That actually makes it seem less disruptive than we imagined, and, honestly, that's a little disappointing.

In the meantime, U.S. consumers can purchase Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung from Amazon and Best Buy, starting June 15. Specifically, the Samsung Chromebook will be $429 for the Wi-Fi only version, or $499 for the 3G version. The Acer Wi-Fi only Chromebook will be $349.

We think we'll just buy the iPad2 instead.

Google Loves the Back Door

In my former I.T. days, I remember being surprised to find Google Earth installed on kiosk computers running Windows, despite their heavily locked-down state which prevented the installation of local applications by anyone other than I.T. admins. More recently, Google figured out how to let employees install Chrome Frame, an Internet Explorer plugin that lets users browse using the Google Chrome browser within IE. The plugin can now be installed without administrative approval, through possibly tricky means, a TechCrunch story implies. This is par for the course, for Google.

Launching easy-to-use collaborative tools in an era of SharePoint gave Google an inroad into the enterprise market, too. Employees used the products without I.T.'s consent, forcing I.T., in many cases, to give in, and take administrative control of the situation by adopting Google Apps.

Now Google sells a premium level of these same services to businesses for $50 per year, per user. The paid offering includes additional online storage, increased security, administrative features, support, service level agreements and more.

That same "employees are our beta testers" M.O. is evidenced clearly with today's (expected) announcement, except in this case, the employees are students. As more of the students adopt the laptops and the services they run, the institutions themselves will have to consider whether their student population is ready to officially "go Google."

Once perfected in the educational system, this same program will then be offered to big business. But by that time, the disruption will be in the price of the laptops, not the method of deployment.

In a down economy, an affordable $20/month laptop will appeal to the cash-strapped student population, and soon perhaps, the enterprise, but more importantly, this initiative pushes forward many of Google's agendas: get into an institution through its end users, not its admins, get more people online so they'll click Google ads, and, the future is the Web, not the hard drive.