Chrome OS And The Microsoft Squeeze

mssqueeNow that we’ve all actually seen Chrome OS, the immediate reaction that most are jumping to is that it won’t be killing Windows anytime soon. Obviously. But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt Microsoft, and apply long-term pressure to the dominant OS. In fact, Google’s positioning for Chrome OS reads like a page out of Apple’s playbook, only from the opposite direction.

Google is aiming Chrome OS right at the bottom of the market. That is to say, cheap computers, netbooks. Apple, of course, takes the opposite approach, targeting the high end of the market with their high-quality and high-margin machines. If Google is successful with its Chrome OS netbooks (let’s call them ChromeBooks), what we could see is the squeezing of Microsoft, an idea I first laid out a month ago. With attacks from the top and bottom, Windows will be relegated to the middle. And ultimately, if Google has its way, marginalized.

There are a number of problems with being in the middle. First and foremost, the middle is average, boring, bland, etc. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, unless you’re a company like Microsoft with an image problem. After years of taking hits, Microsoft is trying to revamp its image with expensive ads, new stores, and a new OS, among other things. But the middle is hard to sell. It’s neither the cheapest nor the best. It’s the thing people have to settle on.

Microsoft, of course, is also in the netbook space with Windows XP and now Windows 7. But after being a sector on fire for much of the year, signs point to a slowdown in sales. While you might think that would be bad news for both Microsoft and Google, Google’s ChromeBooks are really a new category altogether. As Google said during its event, they’re working with specific hardware manufacturers to make machines set to a certain standard. This means that they’ll have larger keyboards and trackpads than most netbooks, among other things. In other words, they’ll be better, from a hardware perspective, than most netbooks.

And they potentially serve a different purpose. A couple days ago, Daring Fireball wondered if the real key for Chrome OS (and netbooks) may be to serve as your secondary computer. But there’s really no need to wonder, Google’s VP of Product Management, Sundar Pichai, said as much during the Q&A session. “This will be a secondary device. It may be a primary device in terms of time spent on it, but we expect people to have other computers too,” he said when asked about more powerful editing software not being able to run on Chrome OS.

People aren’t buying $300 computers with the expectation of running Photoshop (which costs $700) on them. They are buying them mainly to get an extremely portable machine that can surf the web. Google’s promise with Chrome OS is the fastest way to do that.

And that’s what a lot of critics are missing (but we’ve been saying since July). Google isn’t trying to compete with a standard OS, they’re trying to help users realize that for the majority of computing they do, they don’t need one in the first place. Maybe you have a desktop computer at home for those few tasks that need dedicated native applications, and maybe that runs Windows or maybe that runs OS X. But maybe the machine that you use most of the time is your cheap, fast ChromeBook.

Though they get criticized a lot for not making a netbook, Apple also competes in this highly mobile space — their “netbook” is the iPhone. While unlike Chrome OS, the iPhone can run native applications, it speaks to a similar point: Increasingly, for most of your computing, you don’t need Windows.

The point is that consumer computing is shifting to a place where speed and mobility are paramount. The reason people are so excited about products like the CrunchPad and Apple’s tablet isn’t because they can run Photoshop — they can’t — it’s because they offer an easy way to use the Internet. Same thing with the iPhone. Same thing with Android phones. And it will be the same thing with Chrome OS and the ChromeBooks.

The difference is that these ChromeBooks will be the first devices that actually look like the traditional computers we’re used to. They will look like they could be Windows machines, but they won’t be. That’s a powerful stereotype to break. And if Google breaks that at the bottom of the market, with Apple continuing to break it at the top of the market, Microsoft will begin to feel squeezed.