Google makes a push for the enterprise with Chrome

May 12, 2011, 2:20 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Chrome, the web-centric operating system that Google hoped would revolutionize the computer industry, is finally ready for its star turn. This week, Google (GOOG) took the wraps off of its long-awaited Chrome OS netbooks (dubbed “Chromebooks”) at its annual developer conference in San Francisco, I/O. It also revealed a hardware and software subscription plan aimed at businesses, schools and government customers.

Here’s the deal: Enterprise customers will pay a monthly fee starting at $28 per user for a Chromebook (schools pay $20 per student). The fee includes a cloud management console for remotely administering and managing users, devices and applications, plus what Google calls “enterprise-level support,” device warranties and replacements. What’s not included? Google Apps for Business. That means that if users want the company’s enterprise-level app suite (which includes Gmail, Google Calendar and Docs and other applications), they’ll have to pay an additional $50 a year per employee. (If you ask me, it would have made more sense to bundle all of Google’s business offerings with the Chromebooks. Then again, nobody asked me.)

Even so, the combined cost of Google’s monthly Chromebook subscription and annual business apps fee is still likely to be lower than arming employees with full-powered laptops that run on either Microsoft (MSFT) Windows or Apple (AAPL) OS X operating systems. And Google’s web-based Chrome OS has other advantages, especially for mobile workers who are already storing most of their data — like emails, documents and photos — in the cloud. For example, Chromebooks boot up faster and claim to have a much longer battery life than traditional laptops.

Then again, so do tablets. And while Google’s Chrome team was hard at work on perfecting the Chromebook, the company’s very own Android OS was being refitted to power tablets from Motorola and Samsung. And  of course, Apple’s iPad has become more and more popular with business users. The rise of tablets begs the question — why would corporate customers pick Chromebooks over equally affordable tablets?

There’s no doubt Google has been gunning for the enterprise. After all, corporations make up archrival Microsoft’s traditional customer base and a potentially lucrative new revenue stream for Google. The Mountain View, Calif.-based search giant has made some headway in selling its cloud-based business applications to companies, but I’m just not sure Chromebooks are the way to winning corporate customers’ hearts. Google, though, is a company unafraid to experiment. It’s shown a repeated willingness to make big announcements about new products and let users decide whether they want them or not. They’ll sign up big laptop makers, push out a product, and count votes at the cash register.

We should find out whether Chromebooks is a winner for Google soon enough. The initial two Chromebooks, manufactured by Samsung and Acer, will launch on June 15. For now, Google has announced a series of pilot customers including American Airlines (AMR), Logitech (LOGI),  and KIPP (a nationwide network of charter schools).They’ll be the guinea pigs in determining whether students, workers and executives are really ready for a digital life that takes place almost exclusively on Google’s cloud.