Sunday, March 29, 2015

Attack Of The Clones (Microsoft Takes On Chromebooks)

Tech news and business websites are posting lots of stories these days suggesting that Microsoft is "targeting" Chromebooks with a new line of cheap laptops.  The HP Stream, priced at about $200, was the first major entry in the category, and now we're seeing reports that Microsoft is partnering with hardware vendors to create laptops well below that price.  The term "Chromebook killer" is cropping up all over.  Microsoft seems to be particularly worried about the adoption of Chromebooks in school systems, where the combination of utility and ease of administration makes them an obvious choice.  A new generation of computer users is getting regular exposure to Chromebooks, learning that they are capable devices through daily use, and those young people will grow up to be consumers one day.  It's easy to see why this is a real concern.

Here's why I think it's a losing game for Microsoft:

  1. Chromebooks aren't about "cheap": It's true that many Chromebooks are inexpensive.  But their low price isn't necessarily the primary goal - rather, it's the logical result of the architecture.  The point of a Chromebook is to leverage cloud server-based computing and storage, more or less turning the laptop into a terminal device.  Chromebooks have cheap, low-power processors simply because they can.  And not all Chromebooks are "cheap" - my Toshiba Chromebook 2 with 1080p IPS display costs over $300, due largely to the spectacular display and better-than-average sound hardware.  In building cheap Windows laptops, Microsoft is missing the point - lots, maybe even most of the people buying Chromebooks aren't buying them because they're too poor to afford anything else.  They're buying Chromebooks because they like what they offer.
  2. Chromebook buyers see the lack of Windows as an advantage: Windows is bloated.  It requires a lot of resources to run well.  It's popularity, and aspects of it's design, make it a favorite target for hackers.  It has to be patched constantly, and the patching process is cumbersome and fraught with problems.  It can't be run safely without add-on applications to guard against viruses and other malware.  It gets fouled up with use over time.  And in environments where IT staff have to administer large-scale deployments, it takes a lot of work to manage. Chromebooks aren't like that.  They are relatively stable.  The OS is replaced on a regular basis rather than patched, and the process is very smooth and quick (simply requiring a reboot that takes, on average, about 10 seconds).  Chromebooks are relatively safe from malware, and offer a simple way to remove all customizations and return to factory configurations (called the powerwash).
  3. Windows needs resources: Microsoft likes to point out all the things you can do with Windows, but not with Chromebooks (warning - the link above contains several factual errors).  And it's true - you can't install full versions of Microsoft Office on a Chromebook.  You can't install Photoshop on a Chromebook.  You can't install commercial, power-hungry games on a Chromebook.   What these comparisons fail to point out is that while you can install these things on a cheap, sub-$200 Windows laptop, running them with acceptable performance is another matter entirely.  The last time Microsoft decided to try this, the market was flooded with cheap "netbooks" which many users found frustrating to use.  In some ways, these new, cheap Windows laptops will be even less capable than those netbooks - Microsoft is pushing the use of super-low-power CPUs like the Bay Trail Celerons (which do fine on tablets and Chromebooks, but which are not predicted to run intensive applications like Photoshop all that well).  The new laptops are coming with internal storage reminiscent of a Chromebook - like the 32gig SSDs in the HP Stream - and offering free cloud storage for 1 year, similar to Chromebooks - but that storage is paltry for the installation of applications like Photoshop and Microsoft Office.  They come with 2GB of RAM, barely enough to get Windows up and running, and in no way adequate to run Photoshop or advanced games.  The best way to summarize the problem is that in order to hit the desired price-point, Microsoft has had to lower the hardware resources to such a low level that the Windows experience is likely to be sub-par.  They may garner some sales in the short-term, but people expecting to run Office, Photoshop, or triple-A game titles will be disappointed.  My guess is this will hurt Microsoft in the long run.
It isn't my conclusion that Chromebooks are going to kill off Windows, and few Chromebook users think so.  However I do believe that Chromebooks fill an important niche, and I just don't see any way that Microsoft can play in that space without sacrificing Windows' strengths.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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