Skip navigation
Assessing the Chromebook Threat

Assessing the Chromebook Threat

Chromebooks are a joke, but they benefit from good timing

On the face of things, Google's Chromebook initiative is a laughable attempt to turn a web browser into an operating system that runs on mostly lackluster hardware. But Chromebooks are starting to eat into the bottom of the market much as netbooks did before, and for the same reasons: They offer "good enough" functionality for the basic computing needs of the masses, and at bargain basement prices. Do these devices constitute a legitimate threat to Windows?

Certainly, the rise of Chromebook comes at an awkward time for Microsoft. Having previous blunted the netbook threat via a classic "embrace and extend" strategy, the firm then immediately stumbled into its first true post-PC threat: The iPad and the myriad of me-too Android tablets that sprung up in its wake. In a perfect world, Microsoft would muster all of its strength against this one foe and history would repeat itself.

But this is not a perfect world. And tablets aren't even Microsoft's biggest threat. While Apple's chortling about 170 million iPads sold in 3.5 years sounds like a big number, hardware makers shipped over 2 billion smart phones in that same time period, most of them running Android. So there's your second front in Microsoft's post-PC war.

And now Chromebook inches in from the bottom to make it a three-front war. Microsoft, suddenly, is surrounded.

Generally speaking, Chromebook is the weakest of the threats, both on paper and in use. And it's not hard to imagine Microsoft effectively countering this particular threat as it did in the past. But unlike with the netbook, Microsoft now has its hands full with smart phones and tablets, too. So for the wily engineers at Google—who, come on, should in no way be foisting two different mobile operating systems on the world under any normal definition of acceptable strategy—this is good timing, and a nice way to undercut one of its most hated foes.

It's good timing in other ways too: Microsoft's PC maker partners are fed up with the relatively high cost of Windows licensing, which drives them to make money in other ways, such as through selling crapware with their PCs. And they're not happy that Microsoft is suddenly competing with them, too, with Surface. So these companies are adopting Chrome OS in alarming numbers, and this year we'll see new Chromebooks from a wide range of PC makers.

To be perfectly clear, there is absolutely nothing that one can do with Chrome OS, the "operating system" that powers Chromebooks, that one couldn't do—and in many ways do more efficiently—using a normal Windows laptop or Ultrabook. All you need to do is install the free Chrome web browser. (And since Windows PCs are otherwise far more capable than Chromebooks, the resulting machine would be far more useful and valuable.) Likewise, while the mobile version of Chrome is still a work in progress, I'm unclear why Google doesn't simply offer Android on laptop-like devices. After all, it has a vibrant app market and ecosystem, and Chrome runs on Android too.

What I perceive as common sense has no bearing on what's really happening, however. That is, Google doesn't just make Android. They also make Chrome OS. And here we are.

Google sent me a Chromebook Cr-48 back in 2010, and while it's not a retail-quality device, it pretty much still exemplifies the Chrome OS experience. That said, three long years have gone by, so I recently picked up an HP Chromebook 11, which offers a pretty and kid-friendly design and is perhaps typical of today's entry-level Chromebooks. It costs only $280 as well.

I'll be writing more about Chrome OS generally and this HP Chromebook 11 specifically in the days ahead. But here are some general thoughts.

First, Chrome OS is still very much just a freaking web browser. As much as I like Google Chrome, I still find the general Chrome OS experience to be incredibly limiting. You're basically using a single web browser window with multiple tabs, though recent Chrome OS versions feature a Windows 7-like taskbar at the bottom of the screen, which does make a bit of perceptual difference. (And this taskbar is really unsophisticated. You can pin shortcuts to it, as you do in Windows, but only for web apps that are listed in Google's web app store. What you can't do, incredibly, is navigate to an arbitrary web page and pin that to the taskbar. That's silly.)

There are a few exceptions, and I expect this to expand over time. Google+ Photos, for example, looks and works like a floating app, and not like a web page. Chrome OS needs more apps like that.

Chromebooks are starting to expand into new markets. Ignoring the ridiculous Google Pixel, most of today's Chromebooks are utterly disposable $200 to $300 devices. But a new generation of Haswell-based Chromebooks, coming soon, promise more power, more battery life, and more of a PC-like experience. We'll see.

Regardless, today Chromebooks are really just secondary PCs, like netbooks and low-end tablets. They're the sort of thing one would give to a kid so they don't mess up the expensive iPad or Ultrabook that mom and dad use. And while they are much more limited than a real PC, they are also simpler, which his ideal for the kid set.

This HP Chromebook 11 is a pretty, pretty device. The hardware is perhaps a bit too reminiscent of the old white MacBook, but lighter, thinner and a bit curvier. The sign-in screen is gorgeous, but when you use a web app, that ugly Chrome browser window fills the screen. You can make it a floating window, which makes no sense since every app runs in a tab. The weight is ideal for a kid.

Performance seems OK for what it is, and while the screen is relatively low-res these days, the 1366 x 768 resolution is a good match for the size, I think. Plus, it is a budget device. I do keep wanting to touch the screen, however. I suspect touch-based Chromebooks will become more popular over time than the non-touch versions.

But basically, it's a netbook, circa 2013. Chrome OS instead of straight Linux. A more acceptable screen size. A ludicrous amount of onboard storage (16 GB). MacBook look and feel. No surprises, but it does make a good first impression.

More soon.

Hide comments