Microsoft Should Be Worried About Google’s Chromebooks

Just ahead of the holiday shopping season, Microsoft ramped up its FUD machine and  launched the next phase of its infamous anti-Google Scroogled campaign last week. This time, the company is targeting Chromebooks, Google’s cheap ChromeOS-based, web-centric laptops. Why is Microsoft worried about Chromebooks? Because it can see the writing on the wall.

For many mainstream users, the operating system they use is slowly becoming irrelevant, and even though Chromebooks are not right for everyone, they are slowly becoming a real alternative in the low-end laptop market.

Most Chromebook distractors will argue that there’s no need to even try to poke fun at these devices. Who, after all, wants a laptop that can’t do anything else but surf the web? Who would even buy one of these things? It’s the platypus of the notebook world, after all. But while most people think of Chromebooks as laptops that can’t do anything else but surf the web and aren’t “real laptops” (an idea Microsoft plays up in its Scroogled campaign), that perception is quickly becoming outdated and that’s why Microsoft has decided to go for the FUD.

Microsoft wants you to believe that you can’t do anything with a Chromebook when you’re offline. That’s just plain wrong at this point. Sure, Chromebooks make more sense in an always-on environment (which is where most people use them), but nobody is stopping you from playing Angry Birds while you’re offline. Indeed, while Microsoft specifically calls out Angry Birds as the kind of thing you can’t do on a Chromebook, Google would be more than happy if you downloaded it from its Chrome Web Store and played it offline.

More and more ChromeOS apps now work this way, which is great, but if you think about it, how much of what you do on a laptop these days actually happens offline? Unless you really need Photoshop or high-end CAD software or a similarly demanding program, the software you’re probably using most on your laptop is your browser.

Microsoft says you can’t play Call of Duty or Age of Empires on a Chromebook, and that’s fair enough. But you’re not going to enjoy playing Call of Duty on those sub-$250 Windows laptops that Microsoft highlights on its Chromebook vs. Windows laptop page, either. There may never be a Microsoft Office for ChromeOS, but there’s a pretty good version of it available on the web courtesy of Microsoft itself. You can’t do Skype, but Hangouts isn’t bad either. There’s no iTunes, but if you’re online, the Spotify web app works just as well as the desktop app.

At this point, it’s clear that Google and its hardware partners are in the Chromebook game for the long run. Google found an attractive niche for these devices in the education and low-end laptop market and it’s slowly building on this momentum.

The first versions of ChromeOS were indeed too limited and I could never quite recommend them to anybody. Ever since Google switched to a real window manager, however, and started adding more offline capabilities, Chromebooks started making more sense for everyday use. The Cr-48 pilot program launched three years ago. At that time, ChromeOS was exactly what Microsoft describes in its Scroogled campaign: an underpowered laptop that offered little else but the ability to surf the web and get annoyed at its horrible touchpad. Today, it’s a pretty capable laptop, even if it’s not right for everybody yet. In three years, it could become a real challenger for Windows, especially as the modern web slowly catches up to apps.