Today, Google announced two new computers, the latest Chromebook laptop and a new desktop machine called the Chromebox. After reading Jon Mitchell's thorough review, it became apparent that there's now very little difference in user experience between the Chromebook and a traditional laptop (for example, one from HP that runs on a Windows OS). Should traditional PC manufacturers such as HP - not to mention the world's biggest software provider for laptops, Microsoft - be worried about this? You bet they should.
Let's use a specific laptop from HP as an example. Note: This isn't an exact feature comparison, because it's the user experience I'm exploring here. With that disclaimer in mind, I'm going to use the HP Pavilion g6 laptop as my example. I chose it because it was in the "Everyday" category on HP's website, which is basically the same market for Google's Chromebook laptop. The price points are similar, too.
The HP Pavilion g6 is being marketed as "just what you need for everyday life," with words like "reliable" and "just right" being used to describe it. The machine costs $550, but you can get it for $430 after savings. The default OS for the HP Pavilion g6 is Windows 7 Home Premium and it comes pre-loaded with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. The display is 15.6", which admittedly is quite a bit larger than the latest Chromebook's 12.1" display (but let's ignore that for the purposes of this post). It runs on an AMD Dual-Core processor and comes with 4GB of RAM, with a free upgrade to 6GB currently on offer. It has a 500GB Hard Drive, if you include another free upgrade.
Google's latest Chromebook - the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 - will cost between $450 (for the Wi-Fi version) and $550 (for the 3G version). It runs on an Intel Core processor and comes with 4GB of RAM. So if a consumer is looking for a new laptop and has between $450-550 to spend, she may well end up deciding between the Chromebook and an HP Pavilion g6.
There are differences in the hardware that a consumer will weigh up, mostly to HP's advantage. But let's look beyond that to the user experience, which basically comes down to software. After all, it's what you do on the computer that matters most. On that point, it should be noted that you have to pay extra to get Microsoft's full-featured productivity software on the HP machine. So even though the HP has better hardware specs than the Chromebook at the $450-550 price point, you'll end up paying more on the HP for software.
Despite Appearances, There's Not Much Difference in Software
At first glance the software on the two machines is fundamentally different, since the HP laptop relies on desktop apps for the main tasks (such as Microsoft Word), while on the Chromebook you can only run Web apps (such as Google Docs in the browser). But actually, the difference in user experience of the software is minimal. Caesar Sengupta, director of Chrome OS, claims that "the distinction between a Web app and a native app for most people is very blurry if it exists at all." In Jon Mitchell's tests, on the desktop that was mostly true.
Indeed, Jon found that the Chromebook was more than sufficient for most of his daily work and casual computing. He concluded: "If you're a hardcore gamer or professional musician, this [the Chromebook] won't be your main machine. But if your computer use is mostly casual, Chrome OS doesn't lack anything."
Mostly casual = everyday. So the Chromebook is hitting directly at HP and Microsoft's mainstream market for laptops, even though it isn't an apples-to-apples feature comparison.
But Wait, the HP Laptop Has 500GB of Storage... the Chromebook Has Zero
What about storage - that's got to be the HP laptop's trump card, surely? After all, 500GB is a lot of space on your computer for documents, photos, music and a whole lot more. But even there, Google is chipping away at the HP/Microsoft computing paradigm.
With the Google Docs office suite, you don't need to store files on your machine - it's all done in the cloud. Likewise for mail, photos and any other type of file that traditionally has been saved to your hard drive. Let's not forget also the emergence of cloud storage companies like Dropbox, which comes with 2GB of free storage and 50GB for just $100 a year. Google, Apple and Microsoft itself all offer similar free or very cheap cloud storage.
These days, most people can get by with their main files stored in the cloud and not on their computer hard drive. In fact, it's becoming essential to use cloud storage, given how many computing devices we use every day (smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops and more).
Conclusion: Watch Out HP...
HP and other PC manufacturers will continue to have a slight hardware advantage over Google's cloud machines, for the forseeable future. But that advantage is being chipped away at, primarily because of changes in software.
We're now at a point where an everyday consumer can weigh up a typical HP laptop with a Google Chromebook and not see much difference on the software side. What's more worrying for HP and Microsoft is that consumers will soon see advantages in having their software run via the Web - better syncing of files, more convenience with Google Docs and more. That's when HP will really be in trouble.