Chromebooks – Threat or Google’s Next Passing Thing?

I love reading an article I completely disagree with! Alastair Knowles wrote an excellent article about how Microsoft should be on the lookout for Chromebooks. This is absolutely a real concern for Microsoft. Gartner reported Chromebook sales will likely triple by 2017.  With the ongoing fight between Bing and Google Search, Office 365 and Google Apps, etc., this is an interesting comparison to call out because it does bleed into other areas.

Before we start, my career has been built on supporting and now selling Microsoft solutions, so I’m a bit biased. Still, I was one of the first to get a GMail beta invite back in the day and it was from Microsoft and Bungie’s ARG (Alternate Reality Game) for Halo 2! My wife is a pretty big fan of GMail, but I’ve gotten tired of them forcing me to keep all my mail (just swipe right on your ActiveSync device for GMail – Archive, not Delete appears! Ugh! Side note: Microsoft fixed this issue with the Outlook app).

Personal preferences slightly aside, let’s break it down from the Microsoft position with much respect to the original author, leaving just a little bit for Google.

There are so many ways to break these arguments down, but I think combining ROI, Academia and Hardware Revolution together is a good place to start.

Not everything comes down to cost. Chromebooks are popular and cheap, but conversely Apple products are massively popular and expensive. Microsoft is floating somewhere in the middle. With Windows 10, they will be (and have been since August) pursuing the sub-$200 PC market and tablets more aggresively while maintaining their higher end performance PCs through a consistent OS. This is a direct affront to the Chromebook (cue dramatic music).

Beyond that, Microsoft is bridging the gap with mobile and PC with the One Windows experience that allows any app on any device through Adaptive UX. Ubiquity and consistent experiences are the name of the game. Both Google and Apple are missing this point (Android/Chrome OS and Mac /iOS).

Google seems to be shoehorning Android apps into Chrome OS and even is potentially making a massive mistake in trying to interject itself into the web app process in general for the sake of additional revenue with something as innocuous as app notifications. Yikes!

The too-little-too-late argument defeats itself. Just like Google has a chance to compete, Microsoft absolutely does as well and Windows 10 is right around the corner! Consider Blackberry, the pinnacle of mobile information in its time. Apple and Google have both squashed them. As long as there is any refresh cycle on hardware or OS, a contender has a chance to change the game. Microsoft should be relying on this cycle to shore up their numbers from the Nokia purchase. Think about how many smartphones you’ve had in the past 10 years. Any of those refreshes is an opportunity for someone to come grab market share. The market itself is an agent of change! (Note: This is how Chromebooks likely got a toe-hold!)

With the Hardware Revolution, Google started out with a Acer and Samsung as their OEMs and has now grown across multiple OEMs, including themselves. For years now, Microsoft has partnered with OEMs to make PC hardware. They made a huge shift and started making their own hardware with the Surface. Initially this change was admittedly confusing with the RT and Pro versions. RT was likely an early attempt at a Chromebook competitor, but clearly Microsoft missed the mark. Microsoft has dropped the Rt, streamlined it after the Surface Pro 3’s release and has now really hit their stride. The story seems to be shifting upwards, especially in their education play.

Speaking of which, not only has the Chromebook made waves in education, but Google in general has been a choice for start-ups. I’ve seen them compete in this space, but I still maintain that once your startup grows up, you will need the Enterprise features akin to Office 365 and not Google Apps. We’ll get into that more a bit though.

In regards to education, the tide may be turning with the Surface. Like this article states though, you have to go beyond the hardware to the real collaboration features of Microsoft. Even Apple has been having issues maintaining their stanglehold on education lately.

Having said that, let’s lump the following together and see what we get: Productivity, User Friendliness and Innovation.

I’ve long been a proponent of Microsoft Productivity stack. There is a reason why Office is the number 1 productivity suite in the world, having crushed other contenders over the years. I’m not going to get into the all the reasons, but it comes down to usage, not features. You can check out my arguments here for How to Use 15% of Office or How to Use Google Apps.

I will say this though – I used Google Apps in an Enterprise for a year. We switched everyone from Office 365 when my company was acquired. One of our divisions was sold to another company and the first question was – will we get Exchange back? The answer ‘yes’ was met with resounding applause (true story).

From a user friendliness perspective, this is actually where Microsoft shines and the OEMs fail. The OEMs are the reason for bloatware, not Microsoft. Just wait, those same OEMs will hit up Chromebooks with bloatware if they haven’t already. Samsung started the trend with the Chromebook 2 and “premium apps.” Try a Surface Pro 3 or buy from the Microsoft Store – no bloatware in sight via their Signature Series!

To be fair, some people look at Windows and Office as complex and unweidly. In truth, Microsoft has made robust solutions for OS and business productivity so that anyone can use them. From my 5 year old kid to my grandmother, we all use Windows 8.1! Note: I’m not sure how battery life comes into play here as my Surface Pro 3 and Acer S7-192 last pretty much all day performing power user workloads. This has gotten much better in the past 2 years.

When it comes to innovation, Google is all over the place. They do continually innovate, if you consider innovation to be an ADHD like attitude towards bringing up new services and removing them (insert lament for Gtalk, Froogle, Google Buzz, Orkut, etc.). The fact remains though, their core services remain largely unchanged and unimproved from an end user perspective. Search has had some controversial changes lately, but the search UI and the UI for GMail look largely identical to how they looked in 2004 (insert further lament for Google X, which was one attempt at a UI change).

I could (and have) written articles just on Google’s lack of innovation, but let’s talk about patching. Microsoft has an extensive program to test for security issues and get them patched. Over time, less of their patches require reboots, but typically, they still do. Security patches are clearly overwhelming, but they do serve their purpose. I don’t think a monthly reboot is too much to ask, but I get it. Still, 1 in 5 Android apps have recently been announced to be malicious! This is the largest mobile OS on the planet. The point is – the bigger you are, the more complex these patches become.

Surprisingly, you don’t have to look to far to see recent examples of excitement around Microsoft patching. Windows 8.1 was well received. Also, it was free, like Windows 10 will be. Speaking of which, the patches for the tech preview of Windows 10 are going exceedingly well.

Where Google is really failing when it comes to user friendliness and innovation though is limiting their offline features to Chrome only! Microsoft’s version of that is any device, any platform. Look at that, I addressed Dependence on Internet Access (not!) also!

You might have heard about Google Fi, which seems revolutionary. But, it is only supporting Google Nexus 6 at launch. Google is going the wrong direction by forcing a certain subset of their users into their playground. Innovation requires real risk, not just capital.

I think Alastair is right when Addressing Limitations. You can’t be everything to everyone and I doubt even the low end Microsoft platforms and regular Chromebooks could handle heavier workloads. Whether or not Google wants to compete in this space though remains to be seen. Google’s modus operadi seems to be ‘good enough’ solutions.

I don’t say that lightly either, the failure of Google+ and the fact that it underpins all of Google’s authentication is a bit concerning. My hope is that they remove or downplay the social aspect more and just make it an authentication platform like Microsoft Live.

Certainly, Chromebooks have their niche, for now. They’re not in nearly as many countries as Windows and depending on how the Office 365 vs. Google Apps fight plays out, the Chromebook could ultimately go the way of the Blackberry or be folded into an Android OS platform for PCs, aligning Chrome OS with Android. Still, Google has a proven history of killing products that it can’t get it’s core business into. For Enterprise adoption, this is scary. For BYOD, not so much.

I do agree with the last point – Microsoft has a lot of fallbacks if their latest OS coupled with the latest hardware doesn’t sway consumers, but I think the Surface Pro 4 is going to be hugely successful. Perhaps Project Spartan will eventually become an OS itself, similar to how Chrome OS started. I can’t see it playing out this way though. Microsoft is a company in transition and the old stodgy ways are gone. For some reason, Google seems to have taken that burden up.