Chromebooks challenge Windows PCs for low-end consumers. They are cheap to buy and are immediately functional without the need to spend extra money. The downside… you have to be connected to the net to get full value.
“Anyone saying that Android apps on ChromeOS are a good experience is delusional.”
In Chrome OS has stalled out, Dave Ruddock says Google’s Chrome OS has failed to live up to its potential. Ruddock is a Chrome user who says he does 95 percent of his work using the operating system.
When Chrome OS first appeared it looked like the future. Or at least one version of a potential future.
It’s a great idea on paper.
Take a minimal specification computer. One that costs almost nothing to make and almost everyone can afford. Give it just enough hardware to connect to the net and handle a web browser.
Then let efficient remote cloud systems do all the heavy lifting. After all, that’s what most people now do most of the time anyway. Few MacBooks or Surface Books are not web-connected.
ChromeOS users mainly connect to free services. That’s a problem because in the online world free can be a high price to pay.
Large companies don’t give services away out of the goodness of their hearts. They want to advertise their client’s products or manipulate you into voting a certain way. And we all know that works. It’s an aspect of surveillance capitalism.
This gets worse.
ChromeOS uses Android apps to plug functionality or entertainment gaps. The experience is bad.
Android apps can be cheap and nasty at the best of times. They collect far too much user data. Many Android apps live at the seamy end of surveillance capitalism.
Ask yourself why you need to give someone your home address to write a document or your first pet’s name1 in order to put an interesting filter on your uploaded pictures.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Android app on ChromeOS experience is dismal. I can’t bear to use it.
Many apps were clearly written for phones and make little or no allowance for larger screens and keyboards. They are buggy as anything and many are a security nightmare2.
There’s something else bad about Chrome. We live in a world where technology iterates towards a kind of nirvana. Each successive line of Windows or MacOS computers is a step up on what went before. Each new generation of mobile phone has a better camera, faster processor, is packed with more oomph.
This applies even when there are two-steps forward, one step back messes like the butterfly keyboards in recent Apple laptops.
As Ruddock points out, the problem with Chrome, the OS and Chromebooks, the computers do not appear to be moving in any direction.
Chromebooks are not as clunky as they were, some are nice to use. But it isn’t going anywhere. The Chrome experience has barely changed over the years. There’s little prospect of it changing in the near future.
Sure this might not matter to school students who need a fast, low-cost route to the web. It matters to almost everyone else.
Ruddock says there are aspects of Chrome life that amount to computing barbarism. He is being generous.
Sure, a MacBook or a Surface Book might cost getting on for ten times the price of a Chromebook. But the experience is on another plane. You can do so much more. It’s a struggle doing everyday work on a Chromebook, it’s a challenge being creative.
Maybe not literally. But they often ask for information they have no right collecting ↩︎
Although I doubt the average Chromebook users cares much for security or privacy ↩︎
We can assume Microsoft understands the Chromebook threatens its PC business.
Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS. In effect, the operating system is the Chrome browser.
Chrome OS is light on features. You can’t do everything with Chrome OS. You don’t have as much low-level control. But that’s a good thing for many customers.
Lots of users don’t need all the personal computer trimmings. They just want to get a limited set of tasks done in an unfussy way. This applies in spades to young school students.
More to the point, school students and their families are not willing or able to pay for a more powerful computer with a full operating system.
You can buy a Chromebook in New Zealand for less than NZ$400. Brands like HP, Asus, Acer and Lenovo all have versions. This is less than half the price of a mainstream laptop. It is about one-quarter the price of the cheapest Apple Mac.
In many schools Chromebooks have displaced Windows laptops.
That bothers Microsoft. Aside from the impact on today’s market share and revenue, there is a risk people will get a taste for Chromebooks.
Youngsters growing up with school Chromebooks may stick with them later in life. Or if not Chromebook, something else that doesn’t involve Microsoft Windows. The no Windows habit could rub off on their families, friends and workplaces.
Microsoft wants to counter that threat.
The Surface Laptop looks great but it is not going to do that. For a start it is too expensive. It sells in the US for $1000. That’s four or five times the price of a Chromebook.
It is a premium 13-inch laptop, more a competitor to models like the MacBook, HP Spectre and Dell XPS 13. It’s lighter and thinner than a MacBook Air. It costs less and is more powerful.
That comparison is a whole other story that needs closer inspection. Maybe another post. We’re going to look at something more fundamental here.
While Surface Laptop is inexpensive compared to, say, a MacBook Pro or Surface Book, it’s not going to shake up the education market.
That job goes to Windows 10S.
Where Windows 10S fits
There are, of course, plenty of low-cost Windows laptops to choose from. Asus, Lenovo and Acer all have PCs in New Zealand that sell for under NZ$400. If you can afford a little more, there are plenty of better models for less than NZ$500.
Low-cost Windows laptops tend to be clunky and inelegant. They are not powerful by 2017 standards. But, like Chromebooks, they get the job done.
At least they would get the job done but for one problem. To claw back the dollars makers don’t earn from hardware sales, they load them with trial software. This often makes more money for the computer maker than they get from the hardware sale.
Software makers pay to have their apps included as standard on PCs. They may call their products trial ware or use some other coy name. We know them as crapware.
The name is well deserved. These programs are ugly. They make for an awful user experience. They bombard people with messages. At times they can frighten less experienced or tech-savvy users. Some include marketing messages that border on blackmail.
Crapware often slows computers down. It can introduce security risks. More than one of these programs has included a serious malware payload in the past.
Other crapware programs report key information back to their owners behind the computer user’s back.
Even the best crapware is annoying. It can pop up with a distracting, unwelcome message at an inappropriate moment.
In effect, you can get a great deal on a low-end PC in return for accepting a steaming pile of crapware. What a time to be alive.
By locking down the computer, Microsoft says Windows 10S will improve security and performance. It keeps things simple. Windows 10S makes it easy for administrators to manage fleets of computers.
And it locks out crapware.
If you choose to stick with Windows 10S, and that’s optional, then you’ll only be able to install apps from the official Microsoft app store.
Now that may not be what you want from a computer. But there are people who like the sound of this.
Remember Windows RT?
We’ve been here before. Windows RT was the Microsoft operating system on the first Surface Tablets. It had the same lock-down approach and similar restrictions. It was a commercial flop.
RT cost Microsoft hundreds of millions of dollars.
In practice, Windows RT was not an awful OS. After all Apple’s iOS is locked down in a similar way and that’s been a winner.
The issue is that Microsoft Windows users want different things from their devices to Apple users. One of them is the ability to run tons of obscure, esoteric and, in some cases, poorly written niche apps.
Creating a version of Windows that can’t run most Windows apps was a mistake.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft failed to make sure the app store was packed with all the must have apps. Using the RT store was like walking into a shop with dusty, empty shelves and few recognisable products or brands.
This time is different…?
You may ask yourself what’s different this time. The simple answer is that Microsoft will force Windows 10S on the market.
Most or at least many future Windows PCs will come with Windows 10S installed at the outset. Customers can upgrade, if upgrade is the right word here, to a full unlocked version of Windows 10 by paying US$50.
Inertia and a reluctance to spend any money means many customers will never upgrade.
Big guns buy-in
Another difference this time is that Windows hardware makers are joining the lockdown party.
Some of the biggest names will have Windows 10S laptops on sale within weeks. It’s going to be hard for PC buyers to ignore these machines. The list of companies already signed up is a who’s who of the hardware business.
With Windows 10S users will only be able to get apps from Microsoft’s App Store. That means the company gets to clip the ticket with every purchase.
Independent developers may whinge, but the same approach has worked well for Apple.
When it arrives a lot of popular Windows apps will not be available for Windows 10S. Among the stand-outs are the Chrome browser and iTunes. The pair may not be your favourite apps, but they are popular.
What happens when a user, who has paid a bargain basement price for their PC, learns they need to shell out another $50 to run Chrome or iTunes?
The deal is worse than that. When you switch to the full version of Windows, you lose a lot of the security benefits. The responsibility of managing your system returns. Again that may not worry you, but it will be a problem for some others.
If you read the above section and thought Windows 10S will cause headaches for Microsoft’s biggest competitors, you’d be right.
It’s no accident Chrome and iTunes were mentioned above. Google and Apple need to put their games theory strategists onto this one. Do they invest in creating Microsoft app store versions of their software?
If they don’t they run the risk of being cast adrift from large numbers of their customers. Although it’s possible the disconnected customers might be the kind that don’t use their software anyway.
If Google and Apple do build app store versions, they help Microsoft create a formidable ecosystem that may bash them again later.
Windows 10S is likely to be a hit with schools and organizations that want to impose order on PCs.
Otherwise there’s always a chance Microsoft’s customers may walk away from Windows 10S.
People don’t have many other places to go. Chrome OS is even more locked down. Apple is less so, but the nuances of its approach aren’t always understood.
Microsoft still accounts for the vast majority of PC operating systems. So it looks like it will succeed this time. But there’s always a possibility Windows 10S will be an RT rerun with even higher stakes.
Most Chromebooks are low-cost, low-specification devices. In New Zealand prices start at about 20 percent the cost of the other computers mentioned earlier. The ones I’ve seen are not as thin or light, nor do they have great screens and long battery lives. They are not as well made.
You can’t do much on a Chromebook when they don’t have an internet connection. Nor can you do anything that isn’t done through the Chrome browser. If you don’t like Chrome as your browser, you can change it, but it’s not easy for non-technical users.
To some these sound like limitations. To many Chromebook buyers they are virtues. Corporate and government buyers like the idea. There’s less to go wrong, less scope for misuse. Less to manage, less to support, less capital expense, less to lose. Chromebooks are just straightforward, basic computers that can do 90 percent of what most office workers need.
The low-cost is a big deal. Parents don’t have to decide between a Chromebook and a family holiday or school shoes in the way they might with other new era devices.
I don’t see many buyers tossing up the merits of a Chromebook against, say, the iPad Pro. They will make a choice between a Chromebook and a Windows laptop.
Chromebook fits into the picture at the opposite end of the spectrum from the computers mentioned earlier. They put Windows laptops in a pincher. The machines mentioned earlier challenge Windows laptops at the top of the market. Chromebooks undermine Windows laptops from below.
For that reason, Chromebooks are another reason why Windows laptops are not the future of personal computing.
One aspect of Chromebooks I’ve not been able to determine is Google’s commitment. Google has licensed Android to computer makers. There may be two product lines long-term, the two may converge. Whatever, one way or another Google is in the market with a cloud alternative. It’ll be interesting to see if the company gets serious about selling the Pixel C model.
You can pick up a decent Chromebook for NZ$400. No doubt a government buying 40,000 at once could get a discount on that price. Even at full price that would only be NZ$16 million. Or $14 million after cancelling Microsoft’s next support cheque. The old kit could be recycled or distributed to low-income families to reduce the digital divide.
There would be immediate savings. Chromebooks can’t run Microsoft Office. Government departments can shift to Google Apps.
Although the list price is US$50 per user per year, Google would sharpen its pencil to win 40,000 customers and go further to have the NZ government as a feather in its cap. A government with 40,000 seats to equip could also nail Google to floor over terms concerning data security or even building a node here as a condition of the deal.
And if Google doesn’t bite, there’s always Microsoft’s excellent Office 365 which works just as nicely on Chromebooks. That would have the advantage of being familiar and not frightening staff or requiring extra training.
Moving to wi-fi equipped Chromebooks would free up kilometres of cable from government offices. With copper trading at US$7000 a tonne it could raise a little extra cash too. And think of how tidy those desks would look.
There are other potential savings. Chromebooks require little management compared to everyday PCs. Which means:
In an ideal world government bosses could put all those IT geeks to work solving problems and being more creative than telling workers “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” In the real world, that’s likely to mean further cost saving and recycling the IT workers into private industry where they’ll be able to boost company productivity. There are other advantages. As Rod Drury points out:
@billbennettnz I actually think the bigger benefit is the culture change that comes from collaborative editing and 1 click hangouts
While we’re on the subject of Rod Drury, there’s another point. Moving to Chromebooks forces everything to cloud computing. This means massive infrastructure savings. Getting all government employees and applications into the cloud means there will never again be a situation like 40,000 computers using out of date software.
It also creates economies of scale that will make it worthwhile building onshore data centres to deal with the workload. It may be enough to encourage Amazon or Microsoft Azure to set up here — which would be good news for other local users. I’d love to see those two companies in a competitive pitch to win the contract.
Most of all, there are the productivity gains to be had from moving to the cloud and the wider cultural change that will bring about. Drury is right about collaboration and services like one-click hangouts, but that’s just the start. As Drury’s Xero business has proved, you can do everything in the cloud.
Presumably some people are going to pick holes in this argument. Well, that’s what the comments are for. Fire away…