Can Google's Chromebook Break Windows?

Summary.  Google is right: Windows is an old, creaky, virus-ridden product that deserves to be replaced by something better.  But to displace an established computing platform you need to do a lot of things right, and Google hasn't shown the focus and coordination needed to pull it off.  Unless there are dramatic changes in Google's Chromebook plans, I think they are likely to fail.

Google's Chromebook vision is seductive: sleek and simple net-connected notebook computers, backed by the world's biggest web company, replace the bloated, unstable Windows PCs that dominate the desks and laps of the computing world.  Google painted that picture at its IO developer conference last week, and it tantalized a lot of people:

"Google...might have just changed the industry."  -Engadget (link)

"Microsoft could lose billions in sales to Google's Chromebook."  -Beta News (link)

"Google Chromebooks will likely seduce businesses."  -Tech Republic (link)

"Chromebooks may just be the next best solution for small to medium-sized businesses looking to untether from Microsoft Office."  -PC World (link)

I wish it were true.  Windows deserves to be replaced.  It's just plain old, weighted down with decades of compromises and tweaks.  The OS steadily degrades as you use it, and the security software companies will tell you privately that it's impossible to fully protect it from hostile software.  I'm sure that with a clean start we could do better.

So I love Google's idea.  Unfortunately, the Chromebook as currently defined is woefully unready to take on Windows.  It may capture some niches and verticals, but it won't have a major effect on the industry unless Google makes major changes to it.  And some of the biggest barriers to its success are inside Google itself.

In case you're a new reader to my blog, I should give you a brief background on myself, so you'll know where I'm coming from on this issue.  I worked at Apple for a decade, where I was a front-line soldier in the Mac vs. PC war.  I was part of Apple's competitive analysis team and later managed it, and I was in charge of the main Mac vs. Windows marketing team.  Throughout that time, my co-workers and I spent a huge amount of time studying platform transitions -- how computing platforms were displaced in the past, and how could we apply those lessons to defeating "Wintel."

What we found was daunting.  Once a computing platform is established, it's not enough to make a product that's better overall.  You have to duplicate the core benefits of the current product, and be so much better in some areas that you overcome the users' natural resistance to change.  Even when Mac had a graphical interface and the PC was still stuck with DOS, we could convert only a small fraction of the PC installed base.  Users were too attached to their PC programs and all the arcane keyboard commands they had memorized to use them.  Most people moved to graphical interfaces only after Microsoft offered Windows on the PC, which allowed them to keep access to their old software while they gradually came up to speed on Windows.

So when Google brags about the advantages of Chromebooks, I'm completely unimpressed because they are more than wiped out by the enormous sacrifices in basic compatibility and productivity that most people would have to make in order to move off Windows.  The most fundamental problem is Google Docs.

There's no way to put this politely: As a replacement for Microsoft Office, Google Docs stinks.  Its word processor is adequate but limited, its spreadsheet is rudimentary, and its presentation program is so awkward and inflexible that it makes me want to throw something.  In terms of usability and features, Google Docs is about where Macintosh software was in 1987.

In fairness, there are some things Google Docs is great at.  It's fantastic for collaborative editing; using Docs plus a Skype session can be a thing of beauty for brainstorming and working through a list of action items.  But as a replacement for Office, the apps are so limited that using them is like watching a Jerry Lewis movie: you keep asking yourself, "why is this happening?"  I tried very hard to use Google Docs as the productivity software for my startup, and eventually I gave up when it became clear that it was actually destroying my productivity.

If I sound frustrated, it's because I am.  I remember back in 2005 when a startup called Upstartle created Writely, an online competitor to Microsoft Word.  The product was evolving quickly, and as I wrote at the time, I thought it had a good chance of eventually growing into a real challenger to Word (link).  Then Google bought Writely and bundled it into Docs, and I thought "that's even better, now development will really accelerate."

Instead, the evolution of the product has been snail-like.  Six years after the acquisition, the word processor component of Google Docs is improved, but still very primitive compared to Word.  The official Google Docs blog lists lots of new features the team is adding (link), but there are even more missing.  For example, only last month did they add pagination to the word processor.  Part of the problem is that the team is spending a lot of time adding features that have nothing to do with competing with Office.  I sat through a session at Google IO last week on Google Docs, and the main theme was that they are transforming Docs into an online storage system like Dropbox or Box.Net.  The team has added semi-random features like the ability to store videos, do OCR on photos, and sync between devices.  Meanwhile, their presentation module can't even do transitions between slides.

Rather than doing the unglamorous work of competing with Office, the Docs team seems to be chasing after the latest shiny new startup category.  Google says those sexy features were high-priority requests from Docs users, but if so that just shows what's wrong with Google's development process.  The people it should be trying to please are current Office users, not the unusual people who were willing to give up Office for the current mediocre version of Docs.  Get a roomful of Office users and ask them if they'd rather have OCR of photos or a printing architecture that works in most browsers.  As Mom used to say, "you can't have dessert until you finish your peas."  It looks like no one at Google is telling the Docs team to finish its peas.

The limitations of Google Docs are going to be unacceptable to most Office users.  The problem is not that most people create slides with transitions, but they don't want to be cut off from that sort of advanced feature if they ever need it.  The loss of potential future productivity is what keeps people away.

I know, I fought this battle extensively at Apple.  There's a reason why apps have long feature lists -- the feature count drives sales.

Even if a user could come to terms with the limited features of Google Docs, good luck if you need to share your work with the majority of computer users who are still on Office.  Moving documents back and forth between Office and Google Docs routinely mangles some of the features of Office documents.  Now you're not just limiting your own productivity, you are annoying your business partners and coworkers.

Since Google does not seem to be focused on fixing Docs, it's theoretically possible that some other app developer could create an online replacement for Office that really works, and offer it on Chromebooks.  But who would want to invest in that area when Google Docs is there as a competitor?  Docs is just good enough to hinder innovation, but not good enough to take out Office. 

Besides, Google did a couple of sessions at IO comparing web app development to native app development.  They all concluded that web app development was better for content-playing applications, and that for productivity apps you need native software.  And native software is exactly what Chromebooks won't run.

It makes you wonder if the app guys at Google ever talk to the Chrome guys.

So Google can say all it wants about long battery life, instant on, support costs, and invulnerability to viruses.  Those are all problems that PC users put up with because they are unwilling to give up the advantages of Office and the rest of the PC apps base (think about it, if those issues really motivated people, Macintosh would have 80% share in PCs).  I could picture an IT manager looking at the lower costs of Chrome and wanting to force users off Windows, but that will just produce a user revolt.  I know very few IT departments that are willing to take on that sort of battle.  Maybe some very cost-conscious schools and businesses might force users to switch to Chrome, but for the vast majority, as long as Office is not challenged, neither is Windows.

Ironically, if Google really wanted to replace Windows, Android would probably be a better OS for the job.  It has more momentum, and you can write native software for it.  But that's blocked by Google's own internal politics, which has assigned Android to phones and tablets and Chrome to PCs.

I like the Chromebook vision, and some day I'm sure something will replace Windows.  But Google is utterly unready for the hard, unglamorous work needed to make Chromebook succeed, both in terms of its products and in terms of its internal organization.  Unless Google makes major changes, Chromebook will probably be yet another failed Google initiative that will have us asking "what happened?" a couple of years from now.

Kind of like the way we talk about Jerry Lewis.

Three steps to fix Docs

If Google truly wants to replace Windows, it needs to focus Docs on that task.  Stop the sexy but esoteric stuff like automatic translation of street signs in photos (something that most people don't really need their word processor to do), and make sure the basics like printing work properly.  Here are my top three priorities:

1.  Make it look like an application.  The user interface in Docs is primitive, an awkward mix of web page and application.  It is extremely intimidating to a normal user.  Here's the window I get when I edit a word processing document in Google Docs:

You're looking at two inches of stacked-up interface cruft, including three separate menu bars and 58 different clickable items.  Hey Google, aren't you embarrassed by this?  I didn't think anyone could make the Office ribbon toolbar look efficient, but you managed to do it.

You might be saying to yourself, "well, that's just what happens when you run an app in a browser."  That's no excuse.  If you can't make a browser-based app easy to use, you should give up the pretense that you'll ever replace Windows.

2. Take full advantage of HTML 5.  Google gave a great pitch at IO on all the wonderful new graphical features in HTML 5 and its associated technologies: groovy things like 3D transforms, text bound to a curve, animation, and huge numbers of fonts.  Very little of this graphical power has shown up in Docs.  Google should make Docs (and especially its presentation module) a showcase for the great things you can do with HTML 5.

3.  Make Docs extensible.  No matter how well Google focuses its development, it won't be able to quickly match all of the features in Office.  That's why Docs desperately needs a plug-in architecture.  One of the reasons WordPress became a leading weblog tool is because it enabled developers to easily extend it with a blizzard of widgets and add-on modules. Google should do the same with Docs.  Then rather than Google being responsible for covering all the features of Office, the development community could share the burden.  I bet that with the right plug-in architecture, and a widgets store built into Docs, Google could have a more complete office suite than Windows within 24 months.  That would make Chromebooks a truly potent competitor to Windows, and a product worthy of Google's enormous skill and ambition.