Microsoft and Apple Have Everything to Lose if Chromebooks Succeed

Desperate times call for desperate measures at Microsoft. Frobes reports:

Despite a lacklustre start, Chromebooks are becoming relatively popular in the super-budget end of the portable market. This has worried Microsoft for some time. After all, with a Google-centric experience, not to mention an operating system in the form of Chrome OS, there’s little if anything to be gained here by Microsoft and everything to lose. That’s why it’s targeting the Chromebook specifically, with a most likely Windows 10-based $149 laptop.

In the 1990s MS-DOS and MS Windows 3.x and Windows 95 computers were expensive, unreliable, and most important cost prohibitive to build applications for if you were a start up. Students, curious about technology and wanting to learn and contribute could not afford the tools (Visual Studio) and certainly lacked access to underlying source code to learn more about operating systems.

In 1997 my friends and I founded Linux Users Group at Clarkson University and we raised awareness of the open-source software technologies. We had the backing of many professors, and many students. We even had an opportunity to influence IBM’s business direction with Linux and open-source software. After my friends and I graduated, students and faculty who remained formed a group called “Clarkson Open Source Institute” (COSI) which now has a bright and nicely equipped lab in the science center.

COSI is now as much of a fixture of the Clarkson campus as, say, the cafeteria is. How many computer science graduates were influenced by COSI ? How many of them went on to the industry and carried their ideas with them ?

Groups like this not only influenced their peers but also an entire industry. An entire generation of computer science graduates went on to Amazon, Google, Facebook, RedHat, and succeeded at getting the biggest companies out there like IBM and Microsoft to do what they previously laughed at. That generation of developers went on to enterprises and enterprise vendors. They ordered Linux servers, deployed open-source software, and contributed to open-source projects.

What does it have to do with Microsoft, Google, Chromebooks and Windows ? Well, everything. Microsoft, once again, is late to the game. Before you accuse me of being a Microsof-basher, let’s get one thing out of the way — Apple has had their head stuck in the sand for the last few years as well.

Last week I bought a used Samsung Chromebook for $120 on eBay. I wanted to play with it and see what the deal is all about. It turns out that I was able to get myself set up in literally 30 seconds simply by entering my Google credentials. Once in, I got a familiar user interface in the form of Chrome, and all of my Chrome bookmarks, apps and extensions neatly in place.

Moreover, my 8 year old daughter was able to use her school credentials to get onto the Chromebook without any fuss. All of her apps became immediately available, including MIT Scratch she likes to experiment with. Without much difficulty she put together a lab report which she then published on a website. To compose that report she took pictures with her iPad, and the pictures magically made it into her Google Drive and onto her Chromebook. I’ve never seen iCloud work so smoothly.

Since she is so knowledgeable with her Chromebook, she set up a “supervised” account for her younger brother, including all the bookmarks he typically uses.

I have never seen a device that was so easy to begin using by anyone in the family, with any skill level. In my entire life not a single computer, PDA or tablet was as easy to setup as a Chromebook — not Apple, not Microsoft, not Palm, with the exception of maybe Sinclair ZX Spectrum I owned in the 1980s.

Just like my generation of technologists influenced direction of the entire industry, my daughter’s generation will influence technology when they come of age. They will expect ubiquitous broadband access, just like electricity or water. They will expect computing power to be ubiquitous, cheap and plentiful. They will expect their work, apps, and projects to be available anywhere, anytime, on any device they own. These devices could be Apple, Microsoft, or Google — they will have to all talk to each other.

This is why companies like Microsoft and Apple should be paying such close attention to all this. They know what’s coming and they have no control over it. And if they don’t — they won’t survive.