Chromebooks and students: Long term trouble for Microsoft

Chromebooks are invading schools and Microsoft is probably keeping a wary eye on the situation. If it is doing its job properly, that is.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
Chromebook Google Schools
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

I've been warning Microsoft about the Chromebook for a while. The laptops based on Google's Chrome browser have the potential to disrupt Microsoft's hold on the PC space. Microsoft has run ads taking on the Chromebook, so I'm pretty sure it recognizes the threat.

Chromebooks have two things going for them that make them particularly attractive for college students. The cheap price of these laptops, as low as $200, fit the student budget nicely. Especially when you consider the second thing that attracts students, that Chromebooks have a full office suite included at no charge.

Google has a program for getting Chromebooks into grade schools that makes it attractive for organizations to justify replacing conventional computers with them. The advantages to educators is the relatively low deployment cost and the reduced maintenance costs on an ongoing basis.

"Don't ever forget that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world, it's the only thing that ever has." -- Aaron Sorkin

The advangages of such deployments on a large scale are exactly what is attracting college students. Just buy the Chromebook and use it. This is appealing to the busy student who usually has no free time to worry about the equipment they use.

I believe more college students are considering or buying Chromebooks than ever. This isn't based on scientific studies or on statistics, it's based solely on the increasing amount of correspondence I receive from students.

I regularly hear from those who want to know if a Chromebook can handle their school work. They've done their research and heard from other students who use them, and they want to make sure before they lay down their money that the Chromebook will do all of their school work.

My answer to these students is a definite... probably. There are two aspects to school work that are in question. The first is the online course work. This is easy as Chromebooks are basically the Chrome browser which most schools support. The Chromebook should work fine for this.

It's not as clear if the Chromebook is suitable for the second aspect of such work, and that is assignments handed in with digital files. These are often Office documents, especially DOC and XLS files. While the Chrome apps can produce these easily, complicated documents may not render properly on the instructor's Office installation. That doesn't happen as often now as in the past, but it is something to be aware of.

The other type of student I regularly hear from is the one who took the risk and bought a Chromebook for school. Almost all of these students are quite happy with the purchase, and have no issues at all doing (and handing in) school work on the Chromebook.

I hear how easy it was to get going on the Chromebook, and how pain-free using it for school has turned out to be. There are almost no regrets about the Chromebook thrown my way by these college students.

In fact, the only regrets I've heard have nothing to do with the Chromebook. A couple of students have reported to me that they had to stop using the Chromebook after one of their professors demanded they do so. One was told that if she turned in a project that was done on the Chromebook that she would be given a zero for the assignment.

I could see getting a zero had she turned in an assignment that the professor couldn't access, but this wasn't the case. This particular student had been using the Chromebook for weeks, turning in assignments with no problems. It wasn't until the instructor saw her using the Chromebook in class they she was given the ultimatum. Don't use a Chromebook and get proper credit, or use one and fail. I don't know what this professor is afraid of. Guess he isn't aware of the newly renamed Office Online and that Chromebooks can use most of it just fine in the event Google's apps have problems.

There's no question I'm seeing more students leaning toward the Chromebook than in the past. The student population is probably not large enough for this to mean a big financial hit to Windows, but long-term I believe it is of concern to Microsoft.

These students are the next generation of workers and thinkers who will shape the future. What they may be learning in school, standard subjects aside, is not only do they not need Windows, but they in fact prefer to use an alternative. That's bad enough for the folks in Redmond, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Students using Chromebooks are learning that they don't need Microsoft Office to do their work. Many Chromebook users are already discovering this so it's not beyond reason to think that the current generation of students will not be as ingrained in the Windows ecosystem as in the past. They'll have this knowledge when they leave school and enter the workplace.

Surely Microsoft senses this and wants to head it off. That could factor into why it dropped the license fees for Windows on low-end devices a whopping 70 percent. It sees the writing on the wall, and it was written on a Chromebook.

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