As we saw at Fear and Loathing of Chrome OS?, there are a lot of strong opinions about Chrome OS and cloud computing in general.
By the way, I deleted all the junk comments from that and the previous Chrome OS article. I thought at first that these might have been posted by reasonable people with a different point of view, but it quickly became plain that these folks just had an agenda to cause trouble and be nasty. I'm not going to allow that. You can disagree, but useless junk will just be ignored.
The big question is how Microsoft will fare if Chrome OS and Apple's rumored "iTablet" (whatever they finally call it) become popular. Of course , that question is predicated upon the concept of "apps in the cloud" actually being successful - some stridently insist that no one will buy these things at all. There are two prongs to the "this won't fly" argument: one is that few people will give up "fat" computing, and the other is that people will not embrace this because of concerns about privacy, security and app/vendor lock-in.
There is a middle ground: Daring Fireball makes the analogy of owning a bicycle and a car rather than two cars. If that's how this plays out, cloud computing is no threat to Microsoft.
I don't think that's what is going to happen. In the business world, I think more and more corporations will be moving to thin clients. Note that this doesn't imply Chrome; it could mean RDP and VNC terminals, but they don't necessarily have Windows as their OS and Chrome OS is as thin as it gets.
The trend is strong because it saves money both on initial purchase and on-going support. As an example, see this article about IT plans in Britain which "proposes a common desktop strategy, which will involve 80% of government PCs using a shared utility service by 2015.". My sister's employers (one of Oracle's competitors) is removing "extra" PC's from support employees desks, forcing them into shared machines. The employees don't like it, but in this economic client, few want to vote with their feet.
In my own personal experience, once I get one WinTerm or similar device in the door, businesses start replacing PC's quickly. Centralized control is easier for support, the thin clients draw less power, are instantly interchangeable and replaceable. Worries about viruses and malware are now concentrated at the server - again, the employees may grumble about losing their "real" computer, but management sees too many advantages to care. Central server, dumb/thin client computing is a wave of both the past and the future.
Microsoft recognizes that. Consider licensing Microsoft Office on Terminal Server. Before Office 2007, you could just install a retail copy of Office on Terminal server and obtaining the correct count of licenses for the users was on the honor system; while you were technically in violation if you didn't have an Office license for each user, nothing stopped you from running without buying any additional licensing. That changed with Office 2007 - you are now forced to buy the correct licensing. Microsoft would have lost to much income if they hadn't started enforcing the licensing.
So, no threat to Microsoft, right? They may lose the OS and Office sale on the desktop, but they get to charge for Terminal Server and Office licensing on the server. No real loss there.
In fact, my experience is that once the cost of Microsoft Office becomes visible (because you have to specifically buy it rather than having it bundled into the price of the desktop PC), customers are much more willing to look at alternatives like Open Office. Again, we'll see some protest from the employees (nobody likes change) but the cost savings make management much more stubborn about giving the alternative a fair trial. The complaints usually fade away quickly and the idea of paying for Microsoft Office disappears just as rapidly.
At least Microsoft still sells the server. Well, maybe. When we get down to the thinnest of the thin (browser apps), Microsoft's OS application lock-in is broken. Browser apps are often cross-platform, happy to run on any web server platform. When that is true, why pay for Terminal Server licensing when a Linux or BSD box will do the job just as well (or better, honestly)?
Thin clients are a danger for Microsoft. Of course the propaganda at Microsoft tells a different story, but even they accept that the alternatives do exist, making it a weak story at best. As they say at that link, "Microsoft plans on being the TCA provider-of-choice by allowing you to use your existing investment in its platforms and toolsets". In other words, they are hoping that business has locked itself into proprietary tools and won't change. That may be true for some, but it's definitely not the case for the majority.
Of course there are those who will argue that Microsoft development is less expensive, but I really doubt many people believe that. It's all based on FUD, with the primary argument being that you get to yell at Microsoft if they break your app. I doubt many will give that much weight.
Finally, there is the argument that you can be too thin. Pundits rightfully point out all the things that ChromeOS cannot do. That worry is dampened by remembering that ChromeOS is very beta right now - we can't really say yet what it will or will not "do" - and by noting that many of the "but it won't do this" complaints are less often seen or even wanted in a business setting. Only a few business desktops need to connect peripherals or run non-server applications. In fact, doing either of those things might violate corporate policy!
But that's all business. What about on the home front? The "missing features" argument is stronger here. If the thin is too thin, home users may not be interested. Saving money is great (it's even likely that Chrome OS devices may be given away with Internet access contracts), but if Chrome OS is too anorexic to satisfy consumers, who cares?
I might as well bring the yet to be seen "iTablet" into the picture here. While Apple has been stealing some sales from Microsoft, the percentage is still nearly insignificant - it's a growing percentage, but Apple has to fight the well intrenched perception that their machines are too expensive. The "iTablet" probably won't be given away and while Apple may well include many of the "must have" capabilities, the combination of real expense and capability limits would seem to make this a non-starter.
That could well be the case, but I'm reminded of Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma and Ghandi's "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win". There's more here than the naysayers have seen.
For the home user, any capabilities the thin client lacks are unimportant as long as they can be done at the server. That's the part that both the "won't fly" and the cautious approval folks (the bicycle and car analogy) miss. It's not that the thin client will be the home user's only companion (although it could be for some) and it's not that they will use these only when they don't have access to their "fat" PC. No, the home user will go the same route as business - the "server" may initially be the Windows PC they bought last year, but it will begin to act more and more like a server than a PC - the home user's fingers will be dancing more often upon the thin client's keyboard.
That PC server also shaves down the privacy and vendor lock-in concerns. The home user doesn't have to run his apps in the cloud: they can be run right there at home if they are that worried about cloud computing.
That's the future for home users. The thin client becomes a constant companion, accessing cloud apps, yes, but also accessing apps sitting on their home network. Once again, we see that those apps CAN be Microsoft and those servers CAN run Microsoft operating systems, but they don't need to. When it comes time to replace that accidental server, the home user will have other options and won't even feel locked in to Microsoft - they probably CAN use a Linux server! They may still choose a Microsoft system, but they won't be forced into it. The thin client will have broken those chains.
So, it's not that Microsoft gets "beaten". It's that they become unnecessary. They become an option - you could go that way, and some may. But Microsoft will have lost their stranglehold on both businesses and home users. Microsoft may survive, but they will lose their dominance.
We'll all be better off for it. Even people who stick with Microsoft will gain, as the Beast of Redmond will finally have to compete on merit rather than default market dominance.
It's going to be an exciting decade.
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More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2011-04-20 Anthony Lawrence
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