How Google's Chromebook is forcing Apple and Microsoft to improve
The Chromebook just works. Why don't other laptops?
The best kind of marketing is that which rings undeniably true. And this week, when Google rolled out a new ad extolling the virtues of its Chromebooks and lamenting the pesky glitches of its competitors, what stuck out wasn't the ad's special effects or even its pointed attacks on Apple and Microsoft, but rather the fact that most viewers would find it totally and utterly relatable.
The ad is very simple. It shows a desktop computer screen as it fills with errors and glitches that are all-too-familiar to owners of Macs and Windows PCs: nagging requests for updates, browsers hijacked by malware, maddeningly slow countdowns for file copies. It is enough to make you want to throw your computer out the window in frustration. The pitch from Google was clear: If you're sick of all these nuisances, get a Chromebook, and they'll all go away.
Aside from being a brutally effective sell for Chromebooks, the ad also reminds us that so much of our technology remains bafflingly obscure and confusing for everyday users. Google realized this ages ago and has been working, successfully, to rectify it. Now, it's forcing its competitors to answer for their sins.
When the Chromebook first launched, it had its fair share of haters who smeared it as "not being for real work," or as being only half a computer. The device runs on ChromeOS, which is essentially Google's Chrome browser. As such, most actions a user performs on the device take place on various web apps like Google Docs or Slack.
But over time the virtues of the Chromebook began to emerge. Its light operating system allowed it to run quickly, but also meant it was affordable. It is ideal for students, but also for people simply seeking a cheap second device. The Chromebook also boots up quickly, is always up to date, and because everything operates in a locked-down version of Chrome, isn't at risk of viruses or malware.
When Google introduced classroom software to help manage Chromebooks in schools, the devices quickly became popular in the education sector. Students can immediately log into their cloud-based profiles from any device. Google now controls 60 percent of the K-12 market in the U.S.
The Chromebook is more than an education market play for Google, though. It's a way of getting users accustomed to the idea that a computer should work in a particular way — that is, you turn it on, and it just works, with seamless updates and fewer security worries.
This idea is spreading like a weed, and other laptop makers are taking note and following suit. Apple is slowly shifting its attention to the iPad as the future of computing. Yes, it is keeping the Mac updated, but mainly as a way of keeping loyalists happy. Microsoft is trying to salvage Windows by making it adaptable to differing form factors, most notably with its Surface products, which straddle the line between tablet and laptop.
It's fascinating to watch the different tech giants try their hands at inventing their own versions of the future and jostling one another along the way. But there is also something undeniably compelling about the way the Chromebook simplifies so much about the computing experience while also retaining the most obviously productive form factor of the traditional clamshell laptop.
In fact, why isn't the Chromebook's "turn it on and it just works" model of tech more widespread? So much of our technology still feels arcane, failing to pass what you might call "the grandparent test" — that is, can you hand it to someone less familiar with tech and get them to work it right away?
Technology is like a language: Over time, vocabulary gets more complex and it becomes more and more difficult for newcomers to just hop in. And, like language, technology is most effective when it is clear, simple, and unobtrusive. Tech companies should design devices that get out of the users' way and just work. With a few sharp digs at its rivals, Google is reminding us that it's already doing this.