Is a Microsoft WinBook coming?

ChromeBooks have been very popular devices within certain markets like education. Can Microsoft grab a share of this market with its own WinBook?

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Rumors are swirling that an announcement from Microsoft about a Windows 10 Cloud OS is imminent.

What does that mean? It’s basically a full Windows 10 experience pared down to become a cloud only system without the ability to install apps and with limited networking and accessory capability. Is this a good thing, or another Windows RT/Netbook disaster waiting to happen?

Microsoft needs to compete in several markets where Chromebooks are doing quite well. The biggest is the education market, where Chromebooks outsell all other computing devices -- including iPads and low-end PCs. But Microsoft needs to be careful if it doesn’t want to repeat the disaster that was Netbooks.

Netbooks never lived up to their hype. They were certainly relatively low cost, but their performance and the resulting user satisfaction were awful. Low cost notebooks have done relatively well in some markets, but the app and security management overhead is quite burdensome for the education environment. Hence a no-management-needed WinBook would be very well-received.

While Windows Cloud may not be an exact competitor to Chrome -- Windows 10 is a heavier OS than Chrome and it has a lot more running inside it -- it could nevertheless be a smart move for Microsoft. A slightly slimmed down version of Windows 10 that doesn’t allow any additional apps to be added (except some specific ones that Microsoft qualifies/allows through the Windows Store) could provide a nice way for Microsoft to counterpunch against ChromeBooks. It could essentially offer the OS for free (or close to it) and have OEMs build hardware that is cost comparable to a Chromebook, some of which sell for less than $150.

Many users are already familiar with Windows 10 so learning a new user interface would not be an issue. And with so many apps becoming cloud-based, the Edge browser, although not without its issues, could be the access point to many consumer and commercial apps.

Microsoft has talked about creating a full Windows 10 version for ARM, and specifically for Qualcomm’s SnapDragon 835, which has the horsepower necessary to run Windows, unlike the less than stellar performance of earlier Surface Windows devices running on ARM with Windows RT. Windows RT had other major failings, not the least of which was its inability to run most Windows apps that weren’t specifically modified for Windows RT compatibility. But WinBooks could also be built around low cost x86 processors like Intel’s Atom. This may be the easier approach for some OEMs, but it may not be the lowest cost alternative in a very price sensitive market.

If this comes about, it’s a smart move for Microsoft, since Chromebooks in certain markets like education are growing like gangbusters. Without a credible alternative, Microsoft risks losing a large portion of the next generation of users who may choose to avoid a full Windows experience. It’s also smart because if users need to step up to full PC capability and buy a laptop, or use the one many homes already have in place, users may be more likely to buy into an ecosystem they already know, and all of their data will be compatible.

Of course this is just speculation. Many questions remain. How will Microsoft sell Windows 10 Cloud? Which OEMs will create systems? How will Microsoft market/restrict usage to not negatively impact PC sales? Will the devices be powerful enough to not fall into the Netbook trap? Will the Edge browser really run all of the programs necessary for a Winbook in all situations? How expensive, or better, cost competitive with Chromebooks, will these devices be given higher end processor and memory needs?

We should know the answers to these questions soon enough.

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