It feels like a long time since we've had a great big knock-down, drag-out operating system battle. Windows vs. Mac shook out in the ‘90s. iOS vs. Android is mostly settled. But another one is starting this summer if you know where to look. It's not in classic PCs, where the relative qualities between Mac and Windows have remained stable for some time now. It's not in phones, where the iPhone is dominant at the high end and Android owns massive marketshare.
This time it's happening in one specific place: cheap computers. And the fight for it is going to be as brutal and fascinating as the ones we've seen before. The players aren't surprising at all: Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But this is a different kind of platform war, one where all three have a legitimate chance of coming out ahead.
Over the past year, we've been watching the players line up. The operating systems and ecosystems that will be competing are the ones you'd probably guess:
- Google's Chrome OS (with Android apps)
- Apple's iOS (on the iPad)
- Microsoft’s Windows 10 Cloud (and new-style Windows apps)
In all three cases, what you're looking at are "underpowered" operating systems that most people think can't be used as "real computers." But in all three cases, those assumptions are based more on preexisting biases than fundamental flaws. More to the point, I think Google, Microsoft, and Apple each have a roadmap for eliminating those flaws.
A $500 PC could be good enough for nearly everybody, if the software is designed right
All of which is kind of exciting! You can spend the next few months and years watching genuine competition between companies motivated to make the best possible products. And even better, those products will be available at prices that used to mean "crap" but will soon mean "why would I spend twice as much?" And if the web and app developers keep supporting all three, you won't have to compromise a ton by opting for any one of them.
Let's break down exactly what Google, Apple, and Microsoft have in store for this battle.
Google and Chrome OS
By now, Chrome OS feels like a known quantity. People understand that it's "just" a Chrome browser, but that the Chrome browser can do way more computer things that just open webpages. That's because many of those webpages are full-blown apps, some of which work pretty well even when you're offline. It's easy (and justified) to knock Chrome for being a bloated battery hog on your Mac or Windows PC — but the flip side is that when it's running on a computer custom-built just for Chrome, it tends to run much better.
Nearly one year ago, Google announced that Android apps will run natively on Chrome OS. It wasn't (and may never be) the all-smoke, no-fire "Andromeda" hybrid OS. It'll just be Chrome OS with Android apps on it. They'll be resizable, like any regular app window on a desktop computer, and they'll work better offline than web apps.
The dream, then, is that Chrome will be able to take on a two-front battle with both the iPad and Windows. Against the iPad, Chrome OS will have a more powerful, desktop-class browser, real windowing, and more hardware options. Against Windows, it has easier software management and better performance at cheap price points. Most $500 Windows PCs are crap. Most $500 Chromebooks are great.
Can Google finally make Android apps good on big screens?
But as I noted in February when I looked at how that Android Beta is coming along, that dream is presently a nightmare. Chrome OS's challenges are twofold. First, there's the new challenge of making Android apps run well on top of Chrome OS and on top of the various hardware architectures it has to support. We should know very soon if Google has figured that out, as the long-running beta is supposed to be over this month.
The second challenge is the harder one: Android apps on big screens have been bad for as long as there have been Android apps on big screens. Developers have focused on phones to the detriment of tablets, and over the years the number of Android tablets has dwindled down. Today there's only one or two that are even worth mentioning, and you shouldn't buy them anyway.
But if Google succeeds in its goals, that advice will rapidly change. That's because this Android on Chrome OS plan means Chrome OS tablets are coming. I doubt Android apps will be great on tablet or laptop screens this year, but that will be less of a problem than it was before because you can just use Chrome web app versions of most of the ones you want instead.
Apple and the iPad
Ever since Apple introduced the giant, 12.9-inch iPad Pro in 2015, it's been making the case that the iPad can replace your computer. It introduced a smaller, less-expensive iPad Pro last year and has even been running ad campaigns that argue that it's just as good as a "real" computer.
So the answer to the question "what is Apple's cheap computer" already seems settled. Apple has made its bet: it's the iPad. Rumors and speculation that Apple will put the Mac on an ARM-based processor may well turn out to be true someday, but I believe that Apple would rather improve iOS and the iPad to take on Chrome OS and Windows at the low end than try to produce a hobbled Mac that works well on the cheap.
Apple's strategy is slightly more nuanced, price-wise, than either Google or Microsoft. Those companies will have products coming in at multiple price points, but the best stuff will probably hover around $500. For Apple, there's a low-end iPad without keyboard and stylus, or the Pros that start at $599 and go up as you add necessary accessories.
And Apple's not wrong at all in this strategy. The iPad Pros are very powerful, very capable computers. They have several huge advantages over their two competitors. Several million advantages, in fact, and they're called iPad apps. Compared to both Android and modern-style Windows Store apps, there are so many more good quality iPad apps that it's not even a discussion.
The other big advantage for the iPad is simply that it's good hardware running an operating system that was designed for it. That means that the OS is much faster even though it runs on relatively inexpensive hardware. Even the most recent non-Pro iPad, which lacks a keyboard connector and stylus support, feels faster than any other computer you can get for $329.
Making iPads work for multiple users is still a chore
But one of the key reasons that iPads feel so fast is that iOS was designed with a "mobile-first" mentality that constrains apps from doing much in the background. It locks users out from making the kind of customizations they tend to expect on a "real" computer. Instead of moving windows around, you get a two-pane split screen. Instead of choosing your preferred browser and email client, you tend to get locked into Safari and Mail.
I don't have the space here to litigate whether that philosophy of computing is good or bad, whether it's going to hurt Apple, or even whether Apple will change it sometime soon. But I will point out that Apple does need to resolve some of the limitations in its OS fairly soon, because those limitations are precisely why Chrome OS is eating the iPad's lunch in the education market.
I'm talking about multiuser support and updates, primarily. On Chrome (and increasingly on Windows), a new user simply needs to enter their user ID, wait a tick, and then they're logged in with all their apps and stuff ready to go. And if somebody else picks up that computer, they can't get into your stuff. If an administrator wants to wipe the computer, it's relatively simple. All of those features make Chrome OS a dream for education and very compelling to the enterprise.
Apple has created a system that allows for multiuser support for schools, but compared to the simplicity of Chrome OS it's still a convoluted system. More importantly, it's currently only available in schools. Any parent that's gritted their teeth as they handed their work iPad to a child knows what I'm talking about: iOS needs proper multi-user support. I'll be both shocked and disappointed if Apple doesn't address it at WWDC this June.
Microsoft and Windows 10 Cloud
Somewhat surprisingly, we know less about Microsoft's plans than we do about Apple’s and Google’s. All that will change on May 2nd, when Microsoft will hold a splashy event in New York that we expect will be focused on the rumored Windows 10 Cloud.
We've been tracking this new version of Windows since January, and most indications are that it will be a lightweight iteration of Windows 10 designed to take on Chrome OS, especially in the education market. If the current rumors pan out, it will run Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps but either won't run (or will badly run) the traditional Windows apps you've been using since 1995.
Microsoft needs to stop Chrome OS from taking over the low end of the market
There are other reasons to think that Microsoft is setting itself up to attack Chrome OS in the education market. The biggest? One of its top executives, Joe Belfiore, has just come back from a hiatus with a new job: “education sponsor and advocate in the Windows team.” Good timing! Another very obvious reason is the branding of this version of Windows. As Tom Warren has explained, the "cloud" in Windows 10 Cloud "doesn’t mean it’s literally powered by the cloud or streamed to a device." Instead, it'll likely focus on Microsoft's own services and generally imply that it's a lighter-weight OS, like Chrome OS.
Microsoft will no doubt strenuously argue that this won't be "Windows Lite" — heck, it'll probably argue that calling it a "version" of Windows is the wrong terminology because all Windows 10 computers are simply Windows 10 computers. Microsoft is still bruised from all the (justified) criticism it ran into with multiple variants of Windows, to say nothing of the Windows RT debacle. But maybe that will be a mistake. A "lite" version of Windows could be exactly what most people want and need — it would be as simple to manage as Chrome OS, and it would run better on inexpensive hardware than full Windows does.
And running better on inexpensive hardware has been an ongoing series of headaches for Microsoft. From netbooks to Windows RT, Microsoft has been trying to find a way to help its manufacturers drive down the cost of their devices without sacrificing performance. To date, it hasn't exactly been successful. The conventional wisdom is still that spending anything less than $500 or so means you'll get junky hardware, a slow computer, or both.
But there's no inherent reason that Windows can't run well on cheap hardware. Windows 10 is a really good operating system that still doesn't get the credit it deserves for pushing desktop software forward. The problem is that many traditional Windows apps tend to just require more power than they really ought to.
Windows still has an app gap
The solution to that problem are those UWP apps, which is the terminology for apps that you get from the Windows Store that follow Microsoft's new design language and coding standards. They're the apps that put dynamic live tiles in the Start menu, snap to the side in clever ways, and generally just look better. The apps, in other words, that Microsoft needs way more of in order to execute on this plan.
So far, the effort to get more developers to make more of those apps hasn't gone very smoothly. The lack of them is one of the main reasons that Windows RT bombed, and so many users assume that they're just underpowered and bad compared to traditional Windows apps.
The big question for Microsoft is whether or not to allow Windows 10 Cloud to run traditional Windows apps — signs point to "no," though Belfiore did tell Mashable that he doesn't intend to make a version of Windows "that doesn’t run rich Windows apps." And we also know that Microsoft has found a way to get traditional Windows apps running on inexpensive ARM processors.
We'll find out the answer to that question (and hopefully many others) on May 2nd.
Get your popcorn
In brief, here's how I see this upcoming fight for your next cheap computer shaping up:
- Google has a strong position in the education market, but has to prove it can make Android apps good on big screens.
- Apple has a dominant lead in quality apps, but the iOS platform needs to grow up a little more
- Microsoft has the most powerful operating system that can run on cheap hardware, but it needs more apps and better apps that can also run on cheap hardware.
For years, all of the important action has happened on phones. They are, by far, the most important computers everybody owns. But that doesn't mean that there isn't opportunity for innovation on PCs and tablets. And for the first time in a long time, I think we're also going to see genuine competition in that space, as these three companies vie to convince you that you can get a great PC that does everything you need for less than $500.