Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: The Windows killer: Chromebook

Could the Chromebook knock out Windows on the desktop? Don't bet against it.

I've been a believer in Chromebooks for a long time. Now, everyone else is getting the religion.

NPD, a retail market analysis company, reports that sales of Chromebooks exploded from zilch in 2012 to more than 20% of the U.S. PC market in 2013. This helped push overall notebook PC growth up by 28.9%.

Meanwhile, Windows notebooks sales were as flat as a pancake, and Mac sales shrank by 7%. At the same time, overall PC sales declined in 2013 by a record 10.1%.

None of this has been lost on the OEMs. In 2012, only Acer and Samsung had seriously invested in Chromebooks. By the end of 2013, all the major OEMs were making them. Of the top five PC OEMS, Lenovo, HP, Dell, Acer and Asus are all onboard. Dell, the last holdout, announced its Chromebook in December 2013.

If Dell is selling Chromebooks, it's because Michael Dell is sure that Chromebooks are here for the long run. As Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said "Dell sells only those things that people are going to buy. They're not into taking risks." Other companies, notably LG, better known for its consumer electronics, are moving into the Chrome OS market. LG is betting that users want an all-in-one, big-screen, Chrome OS-powered PC. I wouldn't bet against it.

Why is this happening? There are many reasons. Microsoft's flawed Windows 8.x continues to be as popular as hot chocolate in July. And OEMs are feeling less loyal to Microsoft, which alienated its hardware partners by competing with them with its Surface line of devices.

Another pragmatic reason is that Chromebooks are simply cheaper than their Windows competitors. You can buy a Chromebook for as little as $199. Except for the ultra-high-end Chromebook Pixel, most models go for less than $350. If your IT budget is tight -- and whose isn't? -- Chromebooks can be very attractive.

And while tablets and smartphones have cut deep into the conventional PC market, the Chromebook has actually grown in the face of that competition.

I believe this is happening because of another factor, which has been overlooked. The Chrome OS that powers Chromebook is the first significant cloud-based desktop operating system.

True, you can do work on a Chromebook without an Internet connection. But Chromebooks shine to their best advantage when they can access Google's software-as-a-service applications, such as Google Docs and Gmail. And though most Chromebooks provide a small solid-state drive (SSD) for local storage, Google expects you to use the cloud-based Google Drive for your serious storage.

Dell, for one, seems to have figured out that Chromebooks can be a gateway to cloud-based services. Dell's forthcoming Chromebook 11 doesn't just use Google's services. It includes access to Wyse PocketCloud, which allows files to be accessed, edited and shared across PCs, Macs and Android and iOS smartphones and tablets.

We've long known that IT was moving to the cloud. I believe that the Chromebook has very quietly been telling us that the desktop is moving to the cloud as well. Dell is the first OEM to realize that that can mean more than just Google's cloud services. As other OEMs see the possibilities for providing their customers with branded, business-oriented cloud services, I see them pushing Chromebooks to SMB and enterprise customers.

At day's end, my take is that Chromebooks are pushing Windows aside because their integration of the desktop, the Internet and the cloud is simply more attractive than Microsoft's desktop-bound vision, both to users and businesses. Microsoft wants to transform itself into a service company, but its approach has been to force everyone into a new interface across all devices: Metro (to use the original name, which Microsoft long ago abandoned). Google is trying to get to the same place, and by making the familiar Web interface the face of the new desktop, it's winning out.

Windows won't go quickly. Microsoft's installed base is enormous. But tomorrow belongs to cloud-friendly desktops, and unless Microsoft changes directions, that desktop is going to be Chrome OS.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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