Google's Chromebooks Won't Challenge Microsoft's Dominance (Yet)

Google has shaken up the computing world with its rentable Chromebooks using its own Chrome OS. But Google simply isn't going to beat Microsoft at its own game.


Google has shaken up the computing world with its rentable Chromebooks using its novel web-based OS. There's a lot of speculation about how this could change business computing. But Google simply isn't going to tear down the monolithic giant that is Microsoft. Yet.

Among its long list of innovations this week, the stand-out news was the arrival of the Chromebook—a Chrome OS-powered light notebook based on its experimental, developer-friendly CR-48 computer that turned a few heads (not least because of its surprisingly sleek and thus un-Google like design) several months ago. The new device has a list of interesting hardware specs, including a promised all-day battery due to its power-sipping engineering and the low burden placed on the CPU by Chrome OS itself (much of the heavy lifting happens on Google's servers). But the really novel trick—the bit that's inspired headlines like "might have just changed the industry"—is its purchase model.

Google explains it thusly: Typically "even with dedicated IT departments, business and schools struggle with the same complex, costly and insecure computers as the rest of us." That's a problem Chromebooks are intending to end because they include "a cloud management console to remotely administer and manage users, devices, applications and policies" and "enterprise-level support, device warranties and replacements as well as regular hardware refreshes." Essentially Google's selling a one-stop-shop for educational and business computing, wrapping up hardware, software, support and upgrade futures into one bundle. And it's selling it on a monthly subscription: $28 per business user; $20 for school users. The devices "bring you all of Chrome's speed, simplicity and security without the headaches of operating systems designed 20 to 30 years ago" and, Google promises, "with seamless updates, it will just keep getting better."

Though the word isn't written in Google's blog post, there's one company name that's plastered all over this news: Microsoft. Yes, Windows users get a lot of hassle from their OS which incorporates layer upon layer of tweaks to a core idea that's essentially over 30 years old. Yes, Windows PCs are the target of the majority of hack attacks and malware. Yes, a cheap Windows netbook won't run swiftly because even with a stripped-down version of Windows aboard, the operating system was never designed to rely on a light processing burden. Yes, a Google machine that offers to swiftly, cheaply counteract all of this sounds like it'll be welcomed with open arms.

Except it won't. Thanks to Microsoft's gargantuan mass in the computing world, at enterprise, educational and home-use levels it has an incredible momentum—even enough to let it ride out the Windows Vista fiasco, which saw one of the world's biggest technical companies foisting a huge technical flop onto billions of users. 

As an example of the impact of this momentum, ask an Apple user what's nearly always said in response when they counsel their Windows-using friends to try a Mac. It's often something like "ah, but I can't run Word/Excel/Outlook/whatever on it can I?" You can point out the "it just works" benefits, the joys of using the UI and even that MS actually does make Apple editions of Word and its other programs—and that there's an alternative Mac app for nearly every Windows-only piece of software. But it's all in vain: they'll prefer to stick with what they know, sometimes even citing that to use Macs they'd need to relearn how they do everything from clicking on apps to surfing the web. If Apple, one of the best known brands in computing with such a clear message can't defeat the MS inertia—while acknowledging that it is making slow in-roads—Google, with a new paradigm, is going to face even more reluctance.

There is, also, an inertia problem caused by such widespread use of MS software in industry: If you're dealing with a different company, and they send you over a complex spreadsheet or code for a different specialist app that's tailored to your business needs, you're going to want to just be able to run it on your own machines. Its exactly this inertia that caused the Department of Justice to attempt to break up MS in 1998 to try to introduce a more competitive dynamic.

Adding yet another wrinkle, piracy of MS products is rampant. They're undeniably expensive, and in emerging economies the costs can be prohibitive for enterprise users—hence runaway piracy that's reaching record levels in the Asia-Pacific zone. Though there are risks associated with running your business on illicit code, it does at least mean that you can benefit from compatibility and familiarity at zero cost—something Google can't compete with.

And even in non-emerging economies there may be additional hidden costs associated in running Google apps for business, as some recent thinking (by Microsoft) has suggested—adding to the total costs of running what seems to be, at first glance, a super-cheap alternative to Microsoft's systems.

Internally to businesses, Google really could be a promising competitor because of its lower support and maintenance costs—but again, there's a momentum associated with using MS systems, and initiating a big swap-over maneuver for medium to large-scale enterprises requires a serious decision at senior levels, followed by some big engineering.

No matter how much better or potentially cheaper Google's solutions are, these barriers will mean Microsoft will retain its crown for a long time to come.

[Image: Flickr user seattleclouds]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

Read More: Most Innovative Companies: Google

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  • SMP

    The author is right about the inertia in many corporations, but is completely wrong about the claims of application incompatibility or difficulty in learning a new system. The plain and simple fact that many journalists don't grasp is that Chromebooks are quite unlike any other desktop operating system proposed for mass use before it. It isn't an operating system in the sense of the Windows desktop, Apple Mac, or Linux desktops - it is merely a window into server based applications, whether these applications are on the Internet or whether they are hosted in the corporation's own servers. In that sense it doesn't compete with Windows or Mac operating systems themselves but rather the traditional desktop PC model where applications and data is stored on the desktop device. 

    The bottom line is that Chromebooks can and will run any application that any version of Windows, Mac, and Linux can run, and run everything far more securely and in a way that is easier to lock down securely than is possible with a Windows desktop/laptop. How? By connecting to a virtualized or blade hosted desktop on a server (either a corporate server or an externally hosted server) via Citrix or RDP for example. "But that's not fair", I hear you say, "it isn't really running on the Chromebook". Whether it is fair or not, that is the way Chromebooks run all applications - all web applications run on the server as well in exactly the same way. Why would you expect Windows applications running on Chromebooks to be any different?

    What Chromebooks offer you is an absolutely massive cost saving in terms of IT labour cost on desktop provisioning, maintenance and support, which on traditional Windows desktops/laptops is typically 2/3rds to 3/4 of total IT cost in businesses. It also allows users to carry around a huge amount of server based computing power and data in a very light and portable device, and is good for most business users (apart from CAD technicians, graphics artists, video editors, and ultra mobile users such as journalists who might have to work in places outside the office/branch office corporate WiFi coverage where there is no cellnet coverage. The issues raised about connectivity issues in some blogs is also nonsense for business usage. In a business context when deployed in an office or working in different branch offices, Internet connection doesn't matter and loss of Internet connection is actually less of a problem than with Windows desktops. This is because the office WiFi is as reliable as the office LAN and more reliable than office mains power for desktops. If the Internet goes down, then Chromebooks will simply use the cached passwords to log you in. You won't be able to access the Internet any more than you can on a Windows desktop PC or Windows laptop, except that if you have the 3G version of Chromebook, you will. You can also access all local corporate servers and services on a Chromebook the same as a Windows desktop or laptop, including vistualised Windows desktops running on a local corporate server, and access to all server based web pages and applications. In addition, since the corporate servers will be protected by a UPS, you can run applications when you have a power cut which takes down all your Windows desktop PCs.

    Basically Chromebooks success in business will be tied to the progress from a discrete desktop based corporate IT system to a connected, centralised server based data storage. This is the current trend, and if this trend progresses, then Chromebooks (or similar devices) will become the predominant client devices displacing traditional desktops and laptops into niche applications. If the current discrete desktop PC/laptop philosophy continues to dominate in businesses as it has in the past, then the Windows desktop device monopoly is safe. There are however overwhelming advantages for the new server based IT philosophy, that it is difficult to see inertia holding up the obsolete high maintenance desktop PC model (which is a hobbyist computing model which goes back all the way to the early Commedore PET, Radioshack TRS80 and Apple II) for business use for ever.

  • Ben Mitchell

     It hasn't taken the enterprise long to ditch RIM's Blackberry, why not Windows?