IT Operations

Chromebook ‘death dates’ raise eyebrows as new school year begins

Google says the policy is aimed at giving IT managers certainty.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

If there was a test for laptop longevity, Google might get an F. At least that’s what some advocates say as they call on the tech giant to extend the software support dates for Chromebook models commonly used in schools.

The picture on the ground is more complicated, however, with IT pros and Google representatives saying the defined device lifespan helps them plan ahead for the future.

US PIRG recently raised concerns about the sale of 13 Chromebook models on Amazon that lost support as of Aug. 1, preventing them from receiving security updates and ultimately making it harder or impossible to access secure websites like state testing portals. Next summer, 51 more models are set to expire.

The “Chromebook churn” is a huge problem for schools and parents alike, according to Lucas Gutterman, the director of PIRG’s Designed to Last program, especially since institutions heavily invested in Chromebook fleets during the pandemic.

Unlike other laptops that taper off in usefulness as hardware becomes outdated, Chromebooks come with a known auto-update expiration date, which Gutterman called “fundamentally absurd.” For one California school district, this translates to 40,000 laptops headed to the tech graveyard over the next five years.

“This loss of support is based off a date that’s set by Google, rather than a set of clear hardware requirements,” Gutterman told IT Brew. “If Google’s going to be supplying laptops for hundreds of millions of students across the country and using taxpayer dollars to do it, they really ought to do it right. And they have to be held to a really high standard.”

Google said in a statement that “since 2020, we now provide eight years of automatic updates, up from five years in 2016.”

Gutterman acknowledged that Google has taken some steps in the right direction, including previously extending the life of some models that ultimately expired at the beginning of the month, but he said the company can still do better. According to PIRG estimates, the real-time lifespan of a school Chromebook is four years.

From an IT perspective, these dates are just another deadline to plan around. Jordan Genee, technology director for a small, private school in Brooklyn, New York, said institutions should take a forward-looking approach to the lifespan of their devices and phase out laptops accordingly.

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“You should be planning as an IT professional: When the time comes, you’re going to have to replace these devices,” he told IT Brew.

Genee noted that getting outside help can ensure schools aren’t surprised by device death dates that creep up on them, or that aren’t known at the time of purchase.

“Schools that don’t have dedicated IT professionals should look to enlist the support of one when making large device purchases,” he said.

That’s exactly the point of planned Chromebook expirations, Forrest Smith, a Google group product manager for Chrome, told HR Brew. The built-in schedule allows Google developers to push out major updates every four weeks ranging from fine-tuning the user experience to adding new security checks, he said.

“That no-surprises ethos has really driven a lot of our decision making,” Smith said.

He emphasized that the expiration dates forecast how long Google believes the devices can continue receiving frequent updates and running at maximum capacity.

“We don’t want to improve the number and then have the experience be worse. So, I think that’s where the limitations come in,” Smith said. “We’re not able to do a longer lifetime where we feel like we’re going to deliver the exact same excellent value…and we don’t want to degrade that in order to make a trade off.”

Gutterman pointed out that a number of now-expired Chromebooks are listed for sale on major retail platforms as new devices. Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment. HP, a Chromebook manufacturer that saw one of its models expire on Aug. 1, echoed Google’s statement about the devices’ extended lifespans as of 2020.

While it’s unfortunate that consumers could accidentally purchase outdated devices, Smith said Google strives to communicate openly about its phase-out dates. Ultimately, the information can help buyers make more informed decisions, he said.

“Chromebooks are at least offering this transparency,” according to Smith. “This is the only device that I know you could buy where you can look up before you make a purchase, how long you’re going to have with it.”

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to cloud computing, IT Brew covers the latest trends shaping business tech in our 4x weekly newsletter, virtual events with industry experts, and digital guides.