Microsoft is Right to Be Terrified of the Chromebook

I remain fascinated by the emergence of Google’s Chromebooks, not because I’m in the market for one, but for what they bode for the future of the PC industry. Microsoft is also clearly thinking very hard about them, and I think for good reason. But not everyone thinks so. Tom Warren at The Verge comments on Microsoft’s new ads which ham-fistedly diss the Chromebook:

Microsoft appears to be targeting a threat that doesn’t really exist yet.

The only part of that sentence I can get behind is the “yet.” Obviously Chromebooks are not sweeping the marketplace, but that, I think, is obviously because of Windows’ generation-long entrenchment and Chromebooks being just shy of sufficiently functional for general purpose use.

And on the question of entrenchment (or better put, mindshare), Warren is quite right about one thing:

Microsoft’s offensive could backfire, drawing more attention to a platform that many consumers aren’t familiar with. Google has been aggressively pushing its range of Chromebooks with simple ads that focus on the price of the laptop and its simplicity. The devices won’t appeal to every consumer due to their various restrictions, but many potential customers might not even be aware of their existence yet.

Right. It’d be one thing if Chromebooks were the product of some quirky startup or Kickstarter project — Hey guys! Let’s make computers that are really just web browsers!!! — these things come from the beast that is Google, the one company that Microsoft fears most, the ruler of the Web, with the resources to power a full-scale assault on the market should they choose. So while I understand that Microsoft wants to strangle Chromebooks in the cradle, now millions who never heard of them now know there’s a cheap computer available out there.

More to the point, I think Chromebooks are not by any means complete in their evolution as products, and I bet that’s what a lot of people are missing. They see the cheap, somewhat-crippled clamshells that they currently are, and not what they might soon become. As Warren notes, there are important restrictions on a Chromebook (a pittance of on-board storage, slow processors, semi-uselessness when not connected to the Internet), but at the rate at which technology advances and lowers in cost, how long will it be before a $250 Chromebook has a non-crummy processor and enough internal storage for the general consumer — coinciding with greater ubiquity and speed and lower prices of cloud storage for photos and music? Two years? Five, tops?

Imagine a person in the next couple years goes into an electronics store to get a new laptop after his or her $800 Dell has shit the bed. They do email, look at photos, listen to Spotify, and need to be able to do a little work with documents at home once in a while. That probably applies to approximately 75 bazillion people, give or take. They could get a tablet, sure, but it’s not really what they’re looking for. They still want a “computer.” I have to imagine that a $250-$300 Chromebook, particularly with the improvements I’ve mentioned, would be an easy sell. It wouldn’t even be a steep learning curve: they’re not “leaving Windows” so much as paring down to just a browser, which they already know how to use. If anything, they’d be liberating themselves from all the Byzantine cruft of Windows and getting to the core functionality they actually give a damn about.

So the threat to Microsoft may be nascent, but it’s coming. Oh, and it could be a threat to Apple too, at least to their Mac line. iPads are a different beast, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next decade or so, at least in the consumer space, is shared between iPads and Chromebooks, leaving MacBook Pros and higher-end Windows machines to the professional space.

Or maybe something akin to a merged Chromebook and iPad comes about. Small, light, with a touch-screen and keyboard. Yes, kind of like the Surface, but vastly improved and simplified. If so, like the old Windows “tablets” of the 90s and early aughts, Microsoft may once again be in the position of having generally the right idea, but bad execution and worse timing.

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