I have a confession to make: I didn’t always believe in Chrome OS. Years ago, I—like many—thought Chromebooks were doomed to fail. Who wants a laptop that can only run a browser?
But Google persevered, adding features and sanding out rough spots in the platform. And it’s working! Chromebook adoption surged in 2014, giving Chrome OS formidable momentum going into 2015. Why? I’m glad you asked.
They’ll continue taking over schools
Schools have emerged as an unexpected bastion for Chromebooks. They’ve already surpassed iPad shipments into classrooms, and we expect that trend to continue in 2015.
Chromebooks' foothold in education will force more services to support Chrome OS. It's no accident that Adobe is bringing Photoshop on Chromebooks to education customers first. The new Microsoft under Satya Nadella may even be motivated to improve Office Online, giving it offline capabilities on Chrome OS. That would help Microsoft make its case to all the Chromebook-clad schools that they should be using Office Online, not Google Docs.
Both Google and Microsoft understand all too well why it's important to get into schools: Students will most likely stick what they’re taught to use, carrying their preferences over to the home—or the workplace. (Business use of Chromebooks already exploded over the past year too, incidentally.) If Chromebooks continue their rise in the education market, we’ll be feeling Chrome OS's influence for a long time to come.
The rise of “mobile-first, cloud-first”
“Mobile first, cloud first” may be Microsoft’s own new mantra. but right now, Google's Chromebooks are living that mantra better than Microsoft's own products.
Yes, Windows still has the more powerful software. But Chromebooks are rising in part because many people don’t need all that powerful software. They need a laptop-shaped machine—that's the mobile part—to access applications that are now choosing to land on PCs via the browser—that's the cloud part. Facebook: in-browser. Email: in-browser. Google Docs: in-browser. Amazon, Evernote, YouTube, Netflix, the PC stand-in for virtually all of the top 25 mobile apps in America: in-browser.
As PCWorld executive editor Melissa Riofrio found when she dove into the Chromebook ecosystem, fewer everyday people need Windows to do most online tasks. So why put up with all the crapware, system administration, and other junk if you don’t need it? Chromebooks are simpler—a laptop that's good enough for most people and still getting better.
Android users will increasingly want Chromebooks
Android is the most popular computing platform around, and Google is now getting serious about having Chrome OS and Android work together. You’ll soon be able to unlock your Chromebook with your Android phone, for example. When the two devices are connected (via Bluetooth), you’ll receive notifications about incoming phone calls and be able to see your text messages on your Chromebook. More and more Android apps are running on Chromebooks, and Google wants its applications to have a consistent design across Android and the Web. Expect more integration features to appear throughout 2015.
Google’s Chromebooks also deserve credit for breaking the back of Microsoft’s exclusivity agreements with its PC hardware partners. PC manufacturers used to be scared to make PCs running non-Windows operating systems, but now all the major players are dabbling in Chromebooks. Of course, Chromebooks also have the Windows 8 disaster to thank for some of their momentum, along with the dismay of Microsoft's hardware partners when the company debuted its line of Surface products, directly competing against those partners.
Speaking of which…
Chromebooks vs Windows cheapbooks: Fight!
Microsoft is finally waging a price war against Chromebooks. Witness the HP Stream, the first $200 Windows laptop. It runs Windows 8.1 with Bing, a free operating system for manufacturers of low-cost PCs. (Chrome OS is free for Chromebook manufacturers too, sort of—most hardware makers pay Microsoft licensing fees when they use Chrome OS.)
Make no mistake: Windows 8.1 with Bing, the HP Stream, and all the inexpensive Windows laptops popping up are being driven by Microsoft’s desire to compete with Chromebooks. After laughing at Chromebooks with the Scroogled campaign and ridiculous Pawn Stars ad, Microsoft is now fiercely competing.
Even if you prefer Windows to Chrome OS, Chromebooks are helping drag down the price of all laptops—even Windows laptops. In 2015, we’ll see more—and better—inexpensive Windows laptops to compete with Chromebooks.
Chromebook hardware should get better and cheaper, too. Behold the 10-point touchscreens, 1080p displays, and Intel Core processors in recent Chromebooks. It’s a vicious cycle for computer makers, but a virtuous one for computer buyers.
To infinity, and beyond
Sure, I can’t see the future. 2015 may turn out differently for Chrome OS, but I doubt it. After all, Microsoft isn’t releasing Windows 10 until “late 2015”—probably sometime in the fall.
That gives Chrome OS nearly an entire additional year to compete against Windows 8.1. Microsoft likes to proclaim it's sped up the Windows development cycle, but it’s looking awfully slow compared to Chrome OS’s every-six-weeks cycle.
Here's to the new year!