Is it time for an Edgebook?

All the pieces are coming together for Microsoft to launch a direct competitor to Chromebooks. But the company would face tough questions around how the functionality and positioning would differ from Windows notebooks.

Chromium-based Edge: Microsoft outlines new features

Since adopting the Chromium rendering engine, Microsoft Edge has featured virtually perfect compatibility with Chrome, right down to being able to install extensions from the Chrome app store. It's also enabled Microsoft to more easily support operating systems that Edge didn't previously support such as macOS and Linux. But now that Edge is working well, might Microsoft try to go after Chrome OS? While a "lite" version of Windows has been rumored for years, many of the other pieces are already in place or announced.

ZDNet Recommends

Best cheap Windows 10 laptops for $350 or less in 2020: ASUS, Dell, Lenovo, and more

Looking for a new laptop that won't break the bank? Here are a selection from a variety of manufacturers, with prices starting at only $230.

Read More

First, Microsoft has made no secret of how it covets the education market that has embraced Chromebooks. It has fought back with low-cost Windows notebooks from partners that are competitively priced with such devices but may lack Chrome OS' perception of simplicity and security.

Second, after years of having the web apps of office.com languish as Microsoft emphasized the PC versions, the online suite will be the first to take advantage of Fluid Framework, the company's open-source component framework that allows the embedding of applet functionality and collaboration into a range of container documents such as Edge pages.

Third, while the idea of Microsoft limiting the opportunity for Windows developers on a platform might have been unthinkable years ago, times have changed. Many developers, Microsoft included, have made web apps mainstream. Outside of the Windows-boosting Surface team, Microsoft seems indifferent as to where you access its subscription-based client and cloud offerings.

Finally, Microsoft now has the cross-processor architecture support to take the battle to Google -- although, at least for now, it has exclusively focused on high-performance Qualcomm Snapdragon designs as opposed to Mediatek or Allwinner ARM-based chips in budget Chromebooks

Beyond these points, though, what, would an Edgebook bring to the table versus a Chromebook? And, given that Microsoft's own PCs fall in a premium tier, what would incentivize PC vendors to support such a product? While Edge sports a few differentiating features such as Collections, the core web experience would likely be very similar. Microsoft's strongest competitive point would be the greater focus on privacy, one of the best reasons to use Edge versus Chrome today.

Microsoft's great conundrum with such a product would be in choosing the functionality and positioning of whatever would power an Edgebook. Windows app support would be a natural counter to Chromebooks' Android app support. However, the better the support for Windows apps, the less differentiation an Edgebook would have versus existing notebooks.

One answer could be to recreate the original ChromeOS proposition by allowing only web apps. Edge already enables converting any web page into an "app." And drawing a hard line in the sand for "EdgeOS" would avoid the consternation that arose when operating systems such as Windows RT, Windows S, and Windows on Snapdragon (at launch, anyway) offered less than full compatibility. (Had the modern Edge been around in the Windows RT era, those devices would have been functionally close to an Edgebook.)

Alternatively, Microsoft could extend "S mode" to an even more restrictive "E (for Edge) mode" that could be unlocked for at least "S mode" functionality. That would be a more palatable option for licensees that are already selling low-cost Windows laptops to the education market. However, it would be odd to have a device running something called "Windows" that, at least out of the box, couldn't run any Windows apps. And if a primary goal would be to drive Edge performance on streamlined hardware to compete with ChromeOS, a full version of Windows might perform poorly on such hardware. Still, the lesson of Windows S was that customers are more open to restrictive environments if they have an escape route.

One thing is sure: Microsoft has not only failed to kill ChromeOS, but it's failed to contain it. The addition of Play apps has enabled Google's formerly desktop-centric OS to attack a broader opportunity of touch devices with apps optimized for such an environment, expanding out from education-focused devices from Acer and Lenovo to Lenovo's Chromebook Duet, which has had the highest mass-market appeal of any ChromeOS tablet to date. If Microsoft doesn't create EdgeOS, it will have to pin its hopes on widespread adoption of the new WinUI announced at Build to finally host a broad collection of apps that seamlessly traverse notebook and tablet modes.

PREVIOUS AND RELATED COVERAGE:

Surface Go 2, IdeaPad Duet offer strong competition for baseline iPad
The new offerings leverage mature desktop operating systems to compete on flexibility and value.

Microsoft outlines more new features coming to its Chromium-based Edge browser
Microsoft is readying several new capabilities for its new Edge browser, including a password monitor and vertical tabs.

Microsoft Edge privacy settings to change right away
Microsoft's brand-new Edge browser lets you control how much data you share when browsing.