With friends like these, itâ€™s no wonder Microsoft started making its own PCs. This week, HP, the worldâ€™s largest maker of computers, launched a portable computer running Googleâ€™s lackluster Chrome OS. And itâ€™s not alone: Lenovo, the second-largest maker of the PCs in the world, also announced a Chromebook recently, joining Acer and Samsung. Why are Microsoftâ€™s biggest partners actively working against the company?
Although itâ€™s understandable that PC makers donâ€™t want all their eggs in one basket, the Microsoft partnership has resulted in the dominant PC platform, one that still garners over 90 percent market share after a full 20 years at the top. But PC makers have routinely tried to undercut Microsoft and Windows, from the days of IBMâ€™s OS/2 and Lotus SmartSuite to the Linux-based netbooks of several years ago.
Today, however, PC makers are increasingly turning to Chromebooks as the Windows alternative of choice. Like the Linux-based netbooks they spiritually replace, Chromebooks are toy computers running limited software on performance-challenged hardware. Chrome OS, the Google-based OS that powers these systems, is basically just the Chrome web browser with a few peripheral functions thrown in, and itâ€™s fair to claim that a low-priced Windows-based notebook loaded up with the Chrome browser would be about 100 times more useful.
But that assessment assumes weâ€™re worried about customers. Chrome OS shines only for the PC makers, and here we see these companies pushing a solution that benefits them and not their users. Chrome OS, it turns out, is free. And that means that like Linux before it, Chrome OS can help these companies more easily turn a per-unit profit in a market in which they have seemingly forgotten how to do so.
Iâ€™ve written before why it was the PC makers' own similar actions a decade ago that triggered the netbook-based race to the bottom, and that these firms can no longer make money on Windows-based PCs because consumers now expect unrealistically low prices. Microsoft insiders have confided to me that PCs with no crapware bundle would need to be priced at an average of $800 in order for that business to be successful. But the average selling price of portable computers in the United States is about $420.
Whatâ€™s still unclear is why PC makers would even try to back such a lackluster entry. Linux, at least, was a full OS, comparable in many ways to Windows. But Chrome OS is a web browser that still has very limited offline capabilities. And HPâ€™s machine, like most Chromebooks, isnâ€™t particular enticing even if you can look beyond the lack of software capabilities. Itâ€™s large, heavy, and plastic-looking, virtually identical to the firmâ€™s Windows laptops. But it gets barely more than 4 hours of battery life.
In Windows 8, Microsoft has given the PC makers the system they need to raise prices with tablets with and hybrid devices, and to excite consumers with modern multi-touch capabilities and stellar battery life. But what these companies shipped in the holiday selling period wasâ€”wait for itâ€”a selection of low-cost, traditional PCs that didnâ€™t have any multi-touch capabilities. Microsoft is correct to blame these firms for Windows 8â€™s slow start. But with PC makers now hedging their bets with Chromebooks, maybe itâ€™s time to start reevaluating the relationship.
And before anyone blames Surface for this silliness, remember that Microsoftâ€™s PC push was in fact triggered by years of abuse by its PC maker partners, which have been busy ruining the Windows experience with crapware, low-end hardware, wrong and out-of-date drivers, and no control over the retail sales points, which often look like they were picked over by a mob from a Mad Max movie. If anything, Microsoft waited too long.