Like many of the company’s longtime users, IT pros have looked skeptically at Apple’s newest MacBook Pro, which is a deadly combination of expensive and non-upgradeable. One thing IT pros shouldn’t ignore, however, is what Google is doing with its Chromebooks in the coming months.
So here’s me being honest: I feel like I’ve spent the month of November eating crow, rather than turkey.
My reason for that statement is this: A couple of years ago, I made a pitch that, after many years of playing second fiddle to Microsoft, Apple’s Mac platform was quickly becoming good enough (or at least accepted enough) to make a legitimate play for the enterprise. But given a month to digest Apple’s controversial recent upgrades to its MacBook Pro line, along with its stagnation in other parts of the company’s PC business, I’m not so convinced that this is really the case anymore.
There are a lot of problems with the way Apple has approached its thinner-is-always-better industrial design of late, some of which have caused even its most prominent supporters to jump through hoops trying to defend the company. Part of the problem is that Apple took out all the ports on its most recent laptops and prematurely replaced them with USB-C, a rethink of the ubiquitous USB standard that’s more egg than chicken right now. That’s a temporary problem that will work itself out, but it’s still annoying.
More significant, and likely to be most disconcerting to IT departments, is that the premium version of the new laptop—which starts at $1,800 with the Touch Bar—is completely non-upgradeable. The last generation soldered the memory onto the motherboard, but at least it had an upgradeable solid-state drive. That upgradable solid-state drive remains in the version of the new MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar (though, as iFixit notes, it’s a nonstandard device that will prove difficult to upgrade), but the version that has the interesting new Touch Bar has that drive soldered in. If anything breaks inside of this machine, it’s not a repair—it’s a replacement.
This is known, inelegantly, as milking a declining business, although you shouldn’t expect Apple to put it that way.
Apple really had an opportunity to cater to the enterprise with its most recent MacBook upgrades. Instead, it seems content with letting the die-hards continue to use the Mac, while directing any new interest to the iPad, which is most likely the future of the company at the enterprise level. Based on the fact that the company is discontinuing many of its PC-related accessory lines, the writing may be on the wall in the long run.
(And I’m not alone in thinking this, either: Jean-Louis Gassée, one of Apple’s early visionaries who currently cowrites the popular Monday Note blog, suggested the modest upgrade wasn’t designed to expand the Mac’s user base. “This is known, inelegantly, as milking a declining business,” he wrote, “although you shouldn’t expect Apple to put it that way.”)
That’s a bummer. It blunts the successes of the best-in-breed MacOS. And it opens opportunities for competitors like Microsoft, which upstaged Apple with a desktop-style take on its Surface platform last month. (It helps that Windows has been getting better in recent years, opening up new paths like that.)
And, as a result, one of Apple’s biggest competitors in mobile could could see a major breakthrough on the desktop in 2017.
Enter the Chromebook
For years, Google’s Chromebook has gained a reputation as an underpowered sibling to Android devices and the desktop-based Chrome browser. That lack of power is intentional, though, as it keeps the machine simple and focused.
That appliance-like approach to computing has won over numerous schools, which caused a shocking shift in the education market, a longtime Apple stronghold, into Google’s favor. Clearly, the Chromebook is the perfect low-powered machine, and has been one to watch for the past few years.
Dell’s well-reviewed Chromebook 13, which The Wirecutter says is the best Chromebook you can buy.
But a few big changes coming to the ChromeOS platform next year could potentially change the game for a set of users that might have ignored it in the past: Specifically, some of the newer Chromebooks are getting Android support, which is a big deal for offices already reliant on Android phones and tablets—and opens up the devices to native versions of some apps that Chromebook owners could previously only get in web-based forms, like Microsoft Office and high-end photo editors.
Apple is taking the slow road to this kind of integration between mobile and desktop—and it’s been argued that the company’s somewhat timid upgrades to its most popular laptop were effectively done so as to not cannibalize iOS.
Google, however, faces no such concerns, so it’s been able to make this integration with little of the second-guessing that’s followed Apple. And that, in the long run, could prove hugely important for Google as it takes advantage of its Microsoft-like position in mobile and builds a third way for desktop users.
A Move to Commodities
For IT departments—at associations and elsewhere—this shift suggests to me that in the next five years, we’re going to see a sea change on the laptop front.
A Forbes contributor called the integration between Android and Chrome OS “the future,” and while that might be aiming a bit low considering the plaudits shared around Microsoft’s Surface Studio, it nonetheless highlights that there might be a large audience for cheaper laptops that integrate with phones in a seamless way.
(And we’re talking cheap. The most expensive, blinged-out Chromebook model tops out at around $800, which is significantly cheaper than any MacBook. There’s an apples-to-oranges comparison going on there, but that’s kind of the point.)
And unlike Microsoft, which literally tried to do this with its dead-in-the-market Windows Phone, Google has just the level of uptake on Android to pull off a desktop play like this. Web apps are more sophisticated and useful than they were four years ago, and the addition of Android will fill in the gaps that made Chromebooks a tough sell back in the day. The argument is a lot easier than it was back in 2013.
There will still be plenty of folks with high-end machines—Apple won’t lose its niche quite so easily, and specialized uses still require specialized machines—but I think that the laptop industry, at least at the enterprise level, is going to gain more commoditization, as laptops at the low end learn more tricks from mobile platforms, and operating systems mesh together.
IT departments want to save money, they want devices that are easy to secure, and they want devices that are easy to manage. Chromebooks can’t do every job, but they will soon be able to do enough of them that they have to at least be discussed in 2017 as a potential option.
It’s a more compelling argument than a touch bar, that’s for sure.