Redmond Review

Could Chrome Become a Real Threat to Windows?

Microsoft has been fighting a platform war for several years, to protect the Windows franchise. The opponents in this war have been Apple iOS devices as well as the Mac and, to a lesser extent, Google Android. Meanwhile, HTML5 and JavaScript (H5JS) have been less of an overt threat. While their cross-platform capabilities loosen the grip of the Windows native platform, H5JS applications nonetheless run nicely on Windows, Office and SharePoint (see my September 2012 column, "JavaScript's Ascendance Within Microsoft").

But now the H5JS threat is becoming more significant. Two key initiatives out of Google are driving this, and creating challenges to Microsoft, both in terms of platform dominance and business model. What does this mean for developers on the Microsoft platform? Will your skill sets lose marketability? Will you need new tools? Or is H5JS just a paper tiger, destined to be trumped once again by the various native platforms?

The Chrome One-Two Punch
Let's start by describing the Google initiatives in play. First are the Chrome OS and the so-called Chromebooks that run it. The former is just a shim of a Linux-based OS that runs the Chrome Web browser; the latter are inexpensive small laptops with keyboards, touchpads and non-touchscreen displays that run the OS. At first blush, this duo appears to be a netbook platform, but with less power … and at first it was. But the second generation Chromebooks are proving themselves to be versatile, high-value content-creation machines.

The second initiative is an adjunct to the first: so-called Chrome packaged apps. Here, too, the first generation was underwhelming, but the next generation of packaged apps will be much better. They'll run out-of-browser, and take on many attributes of native apps, including access to network and hardware devices. Chromebooks are cloud-centric machines that are weak in offline scenarios. But packaged apps will address this weakness by installing locally and running offline by default, yet they will still be based on the H5JS stack.

Wherever the full Chrome browser runs, so, too, will packaged apps. In other words, packaged apps run across Windows, MacOS and Linux as well as the Chrome OS. Packaged apps enable Chrome OS and Chromebooks, yet appeal to developers who cannot target that fledgling platform exclusively. Suddenly, the Windows platform war has another front. Chromebooks have usurped the very productivity that Windows laptops offer over tablets, and with price points lower than both of them.

Ecosystem Erosion?
There's business impact here, too. The same OEMs that Microsoft relies on to sell Windows PCs are steadily jumping on the Chromebook bandwagon. Samsung and Acer are there already. Lenovo has announced it will throw its hat into the Chromebook ring, and a leak revealed that HP is entering the arena as well, and with a full-size laptop form-factor offering (the leak came in the form of a spec sheet on HP's own Web site).

These OEMs were spooked by Microsoft's own entry into the hardware game with the Surface tablet. Microsoft shrugged off the protestations of OEMs, as Windows seemed the only option for those OEMs anyway. But now Chrome OS seems to be offering a real alternative. In fact, Acer said that its Chromebook product took up a 5 percent to 10 percent share of its shipments in the United States over a two-month period. Chrome OS doesn't just threaten to poach Windows customers; it could erode partner loyalty, too.

With packaged apps, Google will have a competitor to Adobe Air and Silverlight, using a packaging model similar to H5JS Windows Store apps. Google could make out very well: H5JS apps have HTML markup, and that markup can be crawled and indexed, so Google can monetize it through search. Meanwhile, developers get a technology that lets them write apps that run across four OSes.

If you're a .NET developer, you should examine and monitor this situation carefully. For Chrome hosted apps, the full stack of Visual Studio, ASP.NET, Windows Server and Windows Azure will serve just fine. For packaged apps, the relevance of Microsoft dev tooling is less clear, but your H5JS skills will still be quite valuable, and TypeScript could come in handy.

The real question is whether you should focus on Windows-specific environments such as Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and the Windows Runtime (WinRT). And with the expanding number of fronts in the platform wars, that question keeps getting more difficult to answer.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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