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 Founder and CEO of Blue Badge Insights, an analysis, strategy and advisory firm serving Microsoft customers and partners. Brust is also a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; an advisor to the New York Technology Council; and co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press, 2012). A frequent speaker at industry events, Brust is co-chair of the Visual Studio Live! family of conferences and a contributing editor to Visual Studio Magazine. Brust has been a participant in the Microsoft ecosystem for over 20 years, and has worked closely with both Microsoft's Redmond-based corporate team and its field organization for much of the last 15. He is a member of several "insiders" groups that supply him with insight around important technologies out of Redmond. Follow Brust on Twitter @andrewbrust.

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Reader Comments:

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 Jerry Palo Alto

I've been a MS developer since 1985, I could have told Microsoft decades ago they were in trouble. As the years passed, I noticed a very bad culture in the way they started treating developers. Not the big camps, but the small guys. Technology is changes all the time and we change with it. We re-learn over and over. That is not the issue, the issue is Microsft's Culture on screwing developers constantly because MS can't get it right the fist time. When MS DOS moved to version 4, many small developer's programs started crashing (including mine). Turns out there were a few changes to the kernel that us small guys were not notified about. It made out Linkers give divide by zero errors, etc... MS provided little answers at the time and sent me to CompuServe for info. It seemed the big boys were all ok since they had preview access (unlike today). During the Windows phase, they chanted the Visual Basic packages as where to invest your skills or Visual Foxpro. Many followed and a few years later, they dropped both camps. Thousands of developers were left with years of code and MS said to just move it to .Net Easier said than done. Hardware, custom libraries, re-training, updates to customer installations, 3rd party consulting firms, etc... A royal ballet of technology trying to sync while avoid to sink. Apple in the early 90s is a joke among the enterprise, an OS for video games or video production. But they have one thing Microsoft does not, they have a fairly stable development language that rarely changes enough to cause developer's headaches. Microsoft then dumps VB 6 and Foxpro. Another ton of developers head for other platforms. They head for Unix machines or Apples because they have stable development tools. Years later, MS dumps silverlight and places WPF as a secondary to HTML5. Again, dumping developer's by the tons. Where does Microsoft think all these Google, Android, Samsung seniors come from?? They were the same people that MS screwed decades ago and went off looking for more stable environments. I am one of these Ex- hard-code MS developers that went on to develop Apple software. Never looked back since.

Tue, Feb 19, 2013 Matt Penner

This is where things are going and the landscape is changing. I am the director of IT for a school district and a professional developer for 15 years, the last 10 almost exclusivly in the .Net/Web world. We are a 100% Microsoft shop in our servers, client machines and development. But this is slowly starting to change. At our district Chromebooks and their offerings are just too good to pass up. We can put these in kids hands for less than $300 a piece and fully manage them within our Google Apps for Ed dashboard. We can sync all 20k of our student accounts directly with Google Apps. In today's world 90% of the electronic resources kids use are web based. Using Chromebooks our kids can get online, the machines can be managed, they start up in less than 10 seconds, kids don't have to worry about virus software, updates, etc. and their files are always available, no matter which device they pick up. It just works, which is the kind of low maintenance my small department needs. In addition, we can now offer persistent storage, email, collaboration with fellow students and teachers, from any device, all without any storage requirements on our own equipment. The days of old computer labs are dying. While our staff still use full Windows 7 clients, with budgets being what they are, and kids expecting to enter a workforce that is complete mobile and device agnostic, Microsoft does have a different set of players in the ring. Office365 can do most of what Google Apps does but it doesn't have the App Store or the low cost device. We can't afford Windows tablets in every kids' hands. In addition, the kids who do have the few netbooks we have in a pilot program still deal with 1 minute boot times, updates, occasionally corrupt files or bad hardware. These are this that we would simply like to avoid. That being said Microsoft's playing field has been in constant change for the last 20 years. They're still going strong amidst various flops and successes. I have no doubt they'll still be relevant 10 years from now.

Tue, Feb 19, 2013 Don NY

Well written. Would like more numbers, but early in the game. As a dev on the MS stack for the past 15 years, MS is again just reacting and not driving by making HTML5/JS a first class citizen in developing windows 8 apps. They hope to lure people doing development for other platforms and thus are already acknowledging that those platforms are starting to take market share. To bad MS doesn't fight for its own tech like the loyal devs who support its tech. Time to look into packaged apps and see what they can do. Thanks for the insight.

Tue, Feb 19, 2013 Fred

Very interesting article, opened my eyes up to Google's game plan going forward. And I must say its a very good one! And just imagine, one can actually use Dart to code the app in. If you haven't played around with Dart it is nice! And of course Dart can be converted into JavaScript using the dart2js converter. Well played Google - well played! Hey Thomas from Florence, native son of Anniston here - ROLL TIDE!

Mon, Feb 4, 2013 Thomas Florence, AL

Interesting article I would say that WPF & WinRT developers skill set will move to a more ASP.NET development skill set. I feel we are all moving toward a web app society even without Chromebooks.

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