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.


Brendan said...

Google Docs feels a lot like Apple/Claris/Microsoft Works: stripped-down productivity suites that everyone replaced with Office at the first chance.

I've always been surprised that Google didn't embrace at all--the codebase defines cruft and bloat, but it's still free and, unlike Google Docs, actually could replace Office for a majority of users

Chuck Till said...

What about driver availability? Haiku is, or could become, a good single-user operating system... but its driver collection is so limited that it's not ready for prime time, and arguably never will be. Meanwhile the manufacturers of USB devices aren't keen on having to write, test and support drivers for new products on yet another OS. I'm skeptical of Chrome for that reason, too.

samsung tablet pc said...

I am doubtful about the performance of chromebook and we will have to wait for some time.

Mike said...

interesting thoughts...
1) i don’t think Google is aiming to replace Windows so far
2) even if Google Docs are fixed, unlikely Chrome is replacing Windows any time soon, too many other applications are only available for Windows
3) likely Google will have to add native application support to Chrome OS somehow sooner or later
4) personally, at the moment, i want to have a computer with dual boot option – Chrome or Windows

John Muir said...

iPad — and its eventual like — will replace Windows for consumers. The question is what, if anything, will replace Windows at work. 

Chrome (the OS) seems to be trying to answer the problem as it was in 2006. "Let's tear out the obsolete internals and focus on the web." But the iPad is much more approachable and accomplishes that quite admirably. Plus, of course, it also offers all the fruits of the App Store. 

Right now iOS is a better Chrome than Chrome. 

There is certainly room for a rival in the office. Tablets aren't suited to every task by any means. But that environment screams for enterprise grade native apps. Google Docs is the very emblem of what's holding the Chrome platform back. 

If it's thin client access to the web you want, Apple's already got that covered. Just look at those sales go. 

JoeE said...

Chrome OS isn't a solution for all workers, or maybe even the majority or workers, but there's a good subset that it's a good fit for.

I was lucky enough to get a Cr-48 and I've been using it for months, routinely logging on to my company's infrastructure, which like at many medium and large corporations, is entirely web-based. I have a secure connection and all of my data resides on my company's servers behind our firewall. In my role of manager, the Chromebook fits me to a "T".

When I'm in my role of programmer, I still have to go back to my Windows setup, and put up with all the vagaries of Windows deciding to take little "naps", Windows deciding to hiccup and drop the VPN connection, Windows...

Google's big priority is to make sure that those who buy Chromebooks are the intial target audience for Chromebooks and to keep them very, very happy. If they do that, the environment will evolve so that more and more people get included in the Chromebook audience. If they try to push Chrome OS on everyone too fast, you're right, Chrome OS will fail.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, folks.

Chuck, I think you are right about drivers. I believe Google said at IO that it's making progress in this area, but it's another case where they could save a lot of time by just using Android.

Mike, I like the dual boot idea. Heck, I'd like to have one of those. But that undercuts Google's cost saving pitch, so ideologically I doubt they'll want to go this route.

John, if you're looking to replace PCs en masse, I think you need a device with a keyboard. But if tablets are enough, then Android is Google's answer and you don't need Chrome OS at all.

To Apple's credit, it is not pushing iPad as a PC replacement. Instead, it is letting people discover on their own whether iPad replaces what they do with PCs. A much softer, smarter sell. Google, take notes.

Joe, you make a really good point, and thanks for sharing your experiences. If Google had positioned Chromebook that way, I probably would have a different view of it. But at IO, they were categorical about Chromebook being great for almost everyone. Check out BBC's quote from Sundar Pichai: "I am genuinely convinced almost everyone is ready for it today" (link).

Maybe I am reacting more to Chromebook the relentless hype machine than to Chromebook the product.

Walt French said...

In line with @Brendan's comments, Apple has a long history of Office-like apps that compete with… nothing. As in, “better than nothing.”

From the original post, I take that to have been intentional on Apple's part: it did not want to devote the relatively modest resources that a streamlined, but powerful suite would require; i.e., it did not want to compete with Office. Could've, obviously, but had Bigger things in mind than meeting the mundane needs of Corporate America.

So Google's excuse is that it's run by a bunch of undisciplined engineers, or perhaps, engineers whose priorities are totally different from the potential users whom they might capture with an Office equivalent. Google seems OK with that; this post is not the first.

Did Apple really not want to be identified with the Enterprise?

MikeTeeVee said...

"Maybe I am reacting more to Chromebook the relentless hype machine than to Chromebook the product."

I think you're hearing the hype through the filter of your history, living through the "OS wars". I don't think Google is actually saying they'll win the OS wars. Or that they're even thinking about the problem in terms of OS vs. OS. Or that this will be your only computer.

As Joe points out, even somebody who has to use Windows for some things (at the moment) can do a whole lot in a web browser. And it's a lot more today than it was a few years ago. Google is betting that trend will continue.

Ricardo Sametband said...

As for the idea that people don't want to learn another set of commands (and I agree), the interesting thing about Chrome is that everything is inside the browser, and most folks understand how that works. I don't think that is a real limit, quite the opposite: "look, ma, it boots and you are in the web with your familiar websites", etc.
On the other hand, your Google Docs point is quite valid, and the same goes for Aviary (excellent image editor, but heavy), etc.

Still, we should wait for some reviews to see how that works.

Excellent post, BTW.

Benedict Evans said...

There's an obvious parallel here - craigslist. Like Google Docs, a mediocre product that, by being free, makes it impossible for anyone to innovate in the market.

Michael Mace said...

Walt, when I worked at Apple, we desperately wanted to destroy Windows -- convert every user to Macintosh, grind all the Intel chips into dust, etc. We just couldn't pull it off.

As for duplicating Office, keep in mind that the apps in Office mostly started out as Macintosh programs. The big barrier to Mac in the early days was the absence of the dominant PC apps of the time: Lotus 1-2-3, Word Perfect, etc.

It's kind of ironic -- Office today is in a situation similar to that of Lotus 1-2-3 in the 1980s. Somebody's going to replace Office, I am quite sure, but Google doesn't seem to have the focus to do it.

Mike, it's always possible that I'm filtering Google through my own experiences. But I was there at IO when they did the Chromebook pitch, and it sounded pretty comprehensive to me. Given the press coverage, I think it came across the same way to a lot of other people.

Vanessa said...

Interesting post Michael. I agree with your point that it's difficult for a platform to replace another without replicating most of the functionality. It's a tough position for a nascent platform to be in.

You inspired me to share some thoughts on this at:

I'm most excited by the vision of computing as an internet connecting appliance that doesn't require constant care and feeding. But I'm not quite ready to give up my Windows PC :)

FB6 said...

I am surprised nobody so far mentioned in the comment that ChromeOS is supposed to integrate a Citrix receiver. This is obviously irrelevant for the consumer but very interesting for the Enterprise.
So now you still have Windows but at least it's running in a virtualized instance on a server class machine that sits in the data center and it's easier to maintain.
So your users will access "basic" apps using the browser (and we'll see this expanding more and more) and remote into Windows for "complicated" tasks like Office authoring or programming. Certainly it's not as cheap as pure ChromeOS but most of your client support costs go away.

Plot twist: also iOS and Android are capable of Virtual Desktop access. If you create a powerful tablet or smartphone with good device docking experience (an opportunity barely scratched by Motorola Atrix) you can have a device that can kill local Windows AND ChromeOS at the same time.

Anonymous said...

"Docs is just good enough to hinder innovation, but not good enough to take out Office."

That's the kind of insight that's obvious when you hear it (but wasn't to me before.) But google actually faces this across the web (which is it's platform) as it tries to dominate everything to get the incremental page views.

Ten years ago I thought that MS was killing Windows by sucking all the app profits out and chasing all startups to the web.

Today the tide seems to be heading the other way.. not to Windows but to native development on mobile platforms. An iOS developer doesn't have to compete with google.

Curating a platform means not sucking the last dollar of profit out of it. And google's platform is the web.

Jose said...

So after all the vision IBM had is becoming the reality: There are going to be only 6 computers in the world, Google computer, facebook computer, MS and Apple computers...

We will connect using our dumb terminals, witch is what Chrome is about.

Those companies use the people tendency to follow the path of least resistance.

But professionals or companies, do you think they will follow this path?: You see every European like Airbus or a Chinese company giving all their information to an American company?(This means the NSA could snoop and industrial espionage them without court order just citing "strategic interest" to google without the company even being notified?.

Professionals know better than letting a big brother that loves and cares for them to manage their lives watching everything they do.

PS: You are using google for controlling your post comments, it is failing putting the message: We are sorry but we can't post your message(in spanish, no more details). Who knows , maybe they control what you can read on your blog too. :-D

Walt French said...

@FB6, I predict that Google will de-emphasize and/or deprecate Citrix as a throwback to the age of Windows, an artifact of obsolete technology.

I use it daily at work, and while Citrix technology seems competent, you don't need much network latency before ordinary Windows desktop apps are hideous: tooltips left obscuring your view, windows that jerk around when you try to nudge them and too many other uglies that I wish I could forget. This is on a fine, high-speed connection but where there are several hops and firewalls to pierce.

The target for the ChromeBooks is client-server where HTML is the only language spoken. It seems possible to get critical mass around the paradigm, although I suspect it'll always be a bit easier to make incremental changes but harder to architect for a great experience. The practical alternative is iOS- or Android-based apps.

The desktop is not dead but it is not growing, either.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering why your knowledge and opinion of Windows was so out of date or even downright willfully ignorant. But the fact that you used to work for Apple easily explains it.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for your comment, Vanessa. Given your experiences at both Microsoft and Google, you're in a great position to judge this stuff.

Good point on Citrix, FB6. Google mentioned that in the announcement, but it flew right past me. And Walt, I really appreciate your hands-on perspective on it.

Jose, you listed four computers. What are the fifth and sixth ones? I think one will be Amazon, but what's the sixth? To be a bit more serious, you asked if companies will really trust their data to a cloud, especially if it's overseas. I think a lot will depend on national and regional regulations, but in general if all other factors are equal, companies and consumers do whatever saves them the most money. Because cloud development is so much more efficient, apps have been moving naturally to the cloud whenever you can get reasonable performance and usability out of a cloud version. For example, I think most consumer tax preparation in the US is done on web apps now, and the same is probably true for consumer e-mail. I think that trend will continue, with occasional delays in adoption driven by a security lapse that gets press attention. In general, most people and companies will accept a lot of insecurity if it saves them money.

And Anonymous 10:56, did you really need all of this time to figure out that I used to work at Apple? It's right there in the sidebar, for goodness' sake. What the sidebar doesn't mention is that I also worked at SGI, in the division making Windows PCs. And I've been a Windows user for more than a decade. So I think I understand it pretty well, at least from a user and licensee standpoint. But by all means, if I've said something incorrect, please point it out. I'd like to learn, and chances are if I'm confused some other people are too. You're missing a teachable moment here.

MikeTeeVee said...

Michael Mace wrote: "...apps have been moving naturally to the cloud whenever you can get reasonable performance and usability out of a cloud version. For example, I think most consumer tax preparation in the US is done on web apps now, and the same is probably true for consumer e-mail. I think that trend will continue..."

And that's what Google is banking on with the Chromebook, of course. And don't underestimate the appeal of a computer that requires no "sysadmin" skills to keep it running.

For now, it's one more non-PC to add to the mix of smartphones, tablets, ebook readers, and other gadgets.

My main complaint about the first Chromebooks is that I thought they'd be cheaper than similar netbooks. For my purposes, I was looking forward to replacing my Asus Eee netbook (which does little more than run Chrome on Ubuntu).

JoeE said...

I think the financials will work themselves out. Actually, too attractive a financial picture could bring down the whole thing... too many people jumping on board at once, overwhelming support etc. Better to price these things so adoption is gradual.

Somewhere not too far down the road, maybe holidays 2011 maybe later, ARM-based Chromebooks should appear, where you can pick one up for no more than a couple of hundred dollars. When that happens, you'll see a big move from "early-adoption device" to "Internet appliance".

Anonymous said...

Consumers do not always go for the cheapest option. If they did, there would be no Apple, no Mercedes-Benz, no BMW, no Rolex, nothing that is more expensive than the cheapest thing in its class.

I suspect that one reason Apple is doing well is because people know it is both expensive and that lots of Apple gear is meant to be used in public.

Jose said...

Hi Michael, the next two computers are of course Amazon( you guessed it!!) and a new model called HAL 9000.

I agree with companies going mobile, but I do not agree on servers being controlled by a foreign company( imagine your company with all infrastructure being on China on a Chinese company).

That would be like outsourcing your core business competence. It could save some cost short term but you will be suiciding your business.

Companies will use web servers that are cheaper and easier to use and maintain but data will be on their machines, specially critical for the business data.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael, dont know but I believe Apple is at bigger risk than Microsoft. MS stronghold are not early adopters but rather drab corporates where the focus is on other things rather than their OS. Apple on the other is the early adopter/student mainstay the exact target where I see the Google Chromebook aiming to win hearts and minds. So I reckon the big loser is going to be Apple.

Kirill Petrovsky said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention web-version of MS Office. It's also feature-crippled, and collaboration isn't good, but:
- it doesn't break formatting
- interface is the same as in desktop version
- syncs well with Office on the desktop
- they focus on essential features first

Anonymous said...

The whole argument about google docs is pointless as now there is a microsoft office app that allows you to use office on the web through your hotmail account

Anonymous said...

One way to use Chromebooks and Windows apps is with Ericom AccessNow, a pure HTML5 RDP client that enables Chromebook users to connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server (RDS Session Host), physical desktops or VDI virtual desktops – and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

Ericom‘s AccessNow does not require Java, Flash, Silverlight, ActiveX, or any other underlying technology to be installed on end-user devices – an HTML5 browser is all that is required.

For more info, and to download the beta, visit:

brandon h said...

Click 'Try the new look' in Google Docs. I think it invalidates pretty much everything said here, assuming people are capable of clicking it :)

Anonymous said...

The newer google docs look is far more better than the screenshot shown above. So probably you will have to write an update on your article.