I’m not good at predictions. Tim Cook, the CEO of the largest company in the world, called me a twit during a global presentation a few years ago because I made a poor prediction. (Seriously. Here are the details.) I made a commitment then to avoid sweeping generalities about the future.
It’s time for a sweeping generality. I think we’re on the verge of huge disruption in the technology industry, and most people don’t see it coming.
The future is full of Chromebooks.
Chromebooks are laptops that don’t run Windows. They run Chrome OS, a simple operating system from Google that is mostly the Chrome web browser plus a few cool tricks. Today you can browse the web, read email, watch Netflix, and run a limited selection of apps on a Chromebook. If you’re new to Chromebooks, this article has more background info.
Sometime in the next 3-6 months – maybe in time for holiday shopping, maybe early in 2017 – Google will make it possible to run Android apps on Chromebooks. Everything that you’re currently running on your Android phone will run on a Chromebook. Android apps are designed to be used with fingers; Chromebooks with touchscreens will start appearing within a month or two and quickly become the default.
You might buy one. I’ll probably buy one or two, maybe give them as Xmas presents. Your mom might buy one.
A tsunami can arrive as a deceptively small flow of water. It builds and builds in intensity until it is a huge unstoppable force.
Chromebooks are hitting the industry like a tsunami. It has already begun: Chromebooks are taking over the US education market and Chrome OS quietly overtook MacOS this year to become the second most popular computer operating system in the US. But that’s only the beginning of the unstoppable force that will take us into a post-Windows world far more quickly than anyone expects.
My prediction: sales of Chromebooks will skyrocket starting later this year, perhaps surpassing sales of Windows computers before long.
There are four things that will make this happen.
• Chromebooks have matured into very nice laptops – attractive, high quality construction, high performance.
• Chromebooks are very, very simple to operate.
• You will be able to run the Android version of productivity apps (like the Office programs) on Chromebooks.
• Chromebooks are cheap.
It’s all about the price. None of the rest would matter much if Chromebooks cost the same as Windows laptops. But they don’t, and that changes everything.
Chromebook quality has improved
More and more Chromebooks have the same sleek lines, light weight, and quality construction that you find in MacBooks and the best Windows laptops. Screens run at reasonably high resolutions; 1920×1080 screens are becoming commonplace. There will always be low-end Chromebooks made of plastic with poor keyboards, just like the terrible Windows laptops sold on the lower shelves at Walmart. Mostly, though, Chromebooks will be attractive and well-made.
Chrome OS uses less power than Windows. Battery life on Chromebooks routinely runs 12 hours or more. Think about that the next time you’re watching the battery indicator on your Windows laptop.
When the time comes and you shop for a Chromebook, buy a high resolution screen and absolutely do not buy a Chromebook without a touchscreen. There will be a flood of good choices in time for holiday shopping.
Chromebooks are simple
To borrow a phrase from Apple: Chromebooks just work.
One of the important reasons we started using phones instead of computers as our primary technology devices is that Windows computers are difficult. They’re unreliable. They’re never up to date. They’re constantly changing and things stop working for no reason. In short, computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.
Chromebooks boot instantly. They’re always secure and up to date. Since everything is stored online, you can replace a Chromebook and instantly go back to work with your apps and your files – no time-consuming migration or setup required.
The installation only took a few minutes. I was at a desktop almost immediately.
My first instinct was to dismiss it. There was nothing there! Just a browser and a few apps. There were no settings, no control panel, no way to dig around under the hood to troubleshoot networking components. Just a simple, elegant screen with a web browser.
Then I did a double-take. That’s the point. All the complexity has been stripped away. Chrome OS was built up from a simple foundation and has more in common with phones than with computers – and by any measure, we prefer phones to computers these days.
You can’t do everything on a Chromebook that you can do on a Windows PC. Businesses will rely on Windows PCs for many years. Gamers will continue to use Windows. But for most people, Chromebooks do enough to meet their technology needs.
Chromebooks will be able to run productivity apps
One of the shortcomings of today’s Chromebooks is that they can’t run the Office programs – Word, Excel and Powerpoint.
Android apps are coming to Chromebooks.
Guess what runs on Android?
The Android versions of the Office programs are designed for tablets as well as phones. They’re not as full-featured as the Windows versions, which means they’re simpler to use. Most people won’t notice that anything is missing. They produce files in the standard Office file formats – .DOCX, .XLSX, .PPTX. There’s every reason to expect that they will run beautifully on Chromebooks.
All of a sudden Microsoft’s efforts to make Office available on every platform has an unexpected side effect: Chromebooks are legitimized as true productivity devices. This may deal a killing blow to low end Windows laptops.
Chromebooks are cheap
Chromebooks cost one-third to one-half as much as a comparable Windows laptop. You can get a reasonable Chromebook with a 13” screen for $200-$300. The high end business quality Chromebooks will be $500-$600.
People always buy far greater quantities of things that are cheaper but good enough. It’s obvious and we see it play out over and over.
The best example also tells you what to expect in the laptop market: when you measure by the number of units sold, more than 80% of the smartphones sold in the world are Android phones. They’re cheaper than iPhones. That’s the only reason but it’s enough to make people prefer Android by a 6-to-1 margin.
Sales of Windows computers are in freefall. Chromebooks are going to be an obvious alternative in the low-end computer market. The low-end might not make the biggest profits (Apple sucks almost all the profits out of the smartphone market with its 14% iPhone market share), but the low-end sells the most units.
The game is about to change. The tsunami has already started to come onshore. If I’m right, by Xmas there will be a Chromebook in every pot, and two Chromebooks in every garage, or something like that. And if I’m wrong, well, maybe Google CEO Sundar Pichai will call me a twit.