Why Google’s Chromebooks are born to lose

google adds 16 new chromebooks to list getting android apps

It is funny how often it generally takes for a new idea to stick in the market. We first started messing around with tablets in the early 90s. Now, nearly 20 years later, only one vendor has made a successful one: the Apple iPad.

Google’s new Chromebooks are essentially thin clients — lightweight computers dependent on servers (the cloud in this case) which have terminals as their distant ancestors. Sun and Oracle tried to bring the thin client concept to market 20 years ago and failed miserably. Their efforts continued on as products from Wyse and HP, but never became the PC alternatives Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison’s envisioned them as.

Still, as with tablets, the second time could be a charm. Google is hell bent on proving that ChromeOS can be what Larry and Scott hoped: a true replacement for the PC. In their favor, a lot of the negatives that nearly killed the initiative last time have disappeared. Working against them, Windows 7 is vastly superior, and the iPad already serves as a better PC alternative than ChromeOS can ever be. What we know of Windows 8 suggests it blends ChromeOS and iPad concepts into Windows. If Google misses its shot, Microsoft likely benefits. Let’s explore this.

Sun Ray oneThe birth and near death of thin clients

There was a lot of hope in the Windows wannabe camp back in 1993, when Larry Ellison first talked about thin clients, and Sun later embraced the ideal to create the Sun Ray one. A few years later, I hosted a bunch of CIOs in Europe at a desktop conference, and their reaction kind of summed up the problem. In the meeting there were (and this was unusual) a group of Sun executives who were listening in. They were supposed to act like well-behaved kids — seen and not heard. Unfortunately, they evidently missed that memo and started dumping on Windows. At the time, Windows NT was in its infancy, and folks weren’t that happy with how Windows 95 had turned out.

To my surprise, the CIOs and IT folks in the room tore into the Sun execs, explaining in great detail why the Sun Ray 1 thin client was brain dead stupid. It was a lock-in product that forced them to buy from Sun for all future upgrades (they preferred pitting vendors against each other). It was horribly expensive to implement. It had severe problems running current PC code. The migration costs were massive. Basically, they told Sun to take a hike because they weren’t about to trade some annoying problems for some catastrophic ones. The Sun execs looked like they had been hit by a bus.

Larry got that thin clients had to be cheap, and understood that they would likely play best in places like schools, where the security features inherent in them (it was really hard to mess them up compared to PCs) would be valued. However, he picked what appeared to be a girlfriend to run the independent company. Showcasing why executives shouldn’t think with their little heads, the effort failed.

Since then, we have seen some innovative alternatives from companies like Clear Cube, which did remote PCs, and full on thin clients from Wyse and HP, but these mostly went places where data entry was king, serving as replacements for terminals. PCs running Windows are so inexpensive and entrenched that thin clients just don’t seem to have any traction. But, then again, no one has really made a major push in this space for years either. And while mobile is huge in the PC space, it is more of an afterthought in thin clients. At least until now.


Back in the 90s, we thought of ISDN as broadband and hadn’t even really learned to spell Wi-Fi, let alone had a clue what 3G or 4G were. With 4G and current generation Wi-Fi, we have access to bandwidth that seemed impossible two decades ago, and netbooks showcased that we could actually build some interesting laptops for under $400. While they didn’t run Windows very well, they sure could run a thin operating system, and the iPad demonstrated that a well-tuned OS running on reasonably priced hardware could do amazing things.

So the potential is here to revisit thin clients successfully. There are, however some big issues.

The first is that netbooks largely failed in market, demonstrating that people just didn’t want to buy cheap crap. The iPad was successful largely because people didn’t see it as a cheap, limited laptop without a keyboard, which it actually kind of is. They saw it as something different thanks to its slate form factor and touchscreen. Don’t forget Steve Jobs himself introduced both the first and second generations of the iPad, and Apple wrapped it with a massive marketing campaign in order for folks to see the iPad as something magical rather than a crippled notebook. A lot of hard work went in to setting the proper perception.

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

The Chromebook looks like a laptop, making it much harder for buyers to see it as anything else. As for marketing, to say that Google has no concept of executing a marketing campaign at Apple’s level would be making a vast understatement. Google appears to have both an inadequate skill set and marketing budget. Add to this the distinct lack of success of Android Tablets, which should have been able to better draft in the iPad’s success, and you start to get worried. Add one more fact, that the Chromebook will be released before the offline capability is available, and you have the potential for a Xoom-like problem (the Xoom was released without 4G or Flash support, its two biggest features, and failed).

Why Google’s Chromebook sets the stage for Windows 8

It isn’t that Google’s Chromebooks are not potentially compelling; they actually look kind of interesting. The problem is that the netbook, Android Tablet and particularly the Xoom experience showcase what not to do, yet Google appears to be repeating all of these mistakes with the Chromebook. I actually think the product has promise, but that the company needs to channel Apple to make the concept work. Chromebooks need to appear less like cheap crippled laptops and more like something, well, iPad-like.

The technology is close to being where it needs it to be, but the Steve-Jobs-like marketing vision is missing. When you are trying for something disruptive like this, it is marketing, not engineering, that has to take the lead. Unfortunately, Google’s historic marketing weakness will doom this product unless the company addresses it. However there is little doubt that the Chromebook will set the stage for something else that may truly capture our imagination. Ironically, Google’s execution makes it likely that this future product will be Windows 8. The entrenched vendor, and that would be Microsoft, always has the home advantage, particularly when the challenger screws up.

According to the book “In the Plex,” Jobs mentored the Google founders, who then ripped off his iPhone ideas. Evidently, they didn’t understand or stay long enough to get the lesson on marketing. That’ll cost them.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


Smartwatch sales soared in 2018, with Apple leading the charge

The NPD Group, a market research organization, has reported smartwatch sales soared in 2018. Apple is leading the charge, but it's clear there's still room in the market for competitors, as Samsung and Fitbit also did well.

You could spend $1,000 on an iPhone, or buy one of these awesome laptops instead

Finding a decent laptop is easy, but finding one under $1,000 is a bit tricky. Luckily, we've taken some of the guesswork out of picking out a budget laptop. Here are some of our favorites, the best laptops under $1,000.

From Chromebooks to MacBooks, here are the best laptop deals for February 2019

Whether you need a new laptop for school or work or you're just doing some post-holiday shopping, we've got you covered: These are the best laptop deals going right now, from discounted MacBooks to on-the-go gaming PCs.

In 2019, laptops are better than ever. Here are the best of the best

The best laptop should be one that checks all the boxes: Great battery life, beautiful design, and top-notch performance. The laptops we've chosen for our best laptops you can buy do all that — and throw in some extra features while…

From Samsung to HP, here are the best cheap Chromebook deals right now

Whether you want a compact laptop to enjoy some entertainment on the go, or you need a no-nonsense machine for school or work, we've smoked out the best cheap Chromebook deals -- from full-sized laptops to 2-in-1 convertibles -- that won't…

Apple loses battle to use Intel modems in Germany in latest clash with Qualcomm

Apple is following the Federal Trade Commission's lead and has sued Qualcomm for a massive $1 billion in the U.S., $145 million in China, and also in the U.K., claiming the company charged onerous royalties for its patented tech.

New Apple patent hints clamshell-style foldable phone may be in the works

Apple has filed a patent for a foldable phone that suggests the company could be following in the footsteps of the likes of Samsung and Huawei. The patent describes a clamshell-style foldable phone with two separate sections.

Worried about extra data charges? Here's how to check your usage on an iPhone

It's common to get a little nervous about nearing data limits. Keep your peace of mind by checking how much data your iPhone is using. Our guide on how to check data usage on an iPhone helps you stay in control.
Home Theater

Hi-res streaming audio service Qobuz arrives in U.S., threatens Tidal’s monopoly

For several years, Tidal enjoyed a monopoly on hi-res music streaming in the U.S. Now, French company Qobuz is here to offer some competition with a variety of monthly plans starting at $10 a month.

Save space on your iPhone by turning off Live Photos in the camera app

If you want to save storage space on your iPhone or reduce the size of your backup for iCloud, then you should think about turning off Live Photos in the camera app. Find out exactly how to do it with our easy guide.

Don't know what to do with all your old DVDs? Here's how to convert them to MP4

Given today's rapid technological advancements, physical discs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Check out our guide on how to convert a DVD to MP4, so you can ditch discs for digital files.

How to perform a reverse image search in Android or iOS

You can quickly use Google to search, and reverse search, images on a PC or laptop, but did you know it's almost as easy to do in Android and iOS? We explain how to do it here, whether you want to use Chrome or a third-party app.

Be careful who you bokeh, jokes Apple’s latest iPhone ad

With iPhone sales under pressure, you'd think there wouldn't be much to laugh about at Apple HQ. But the company has seen fit to inject some humor into its latest handset ad, which highlights the camera's Depth Control feature.

Flip from portrait to landscape as we reveal how to rotate a video on iPhone

If you've accidentally shot a video in portrait orientation and you want to flip to landscape, then this is the guide for you. We'll explain how to use iMovie to rotate a video on your iPhone or iPad for free and suggest alternative apps.