The Chromebook, Windows RT, and the Officebook that might have been

Imagine if Microsoft somehow managed to make a $249 machine (after all, if Acer and Samsung could do it, so could Microsoft), And imagine if Microsoft called it the Officebook.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Last week, I picked up a cheap $249 Chromebook at the local office supply store.

As I think back over my purchase decision, the magnitude of Microsoft's RT marketing blunders has become even more tangibly clear -- and even more sad.

What follows is a short story of what might have been.

Here's a quick bit of background

I use a monster laptop every day for work. It's big, heavy, and incredibly expensive. It has 32 gig of RAM, two monster SSDs, and the fastest processor available as of about 15 months ago. It eats power and is mounted on my desk connected to two 24-inch monitors. I don't like to move this machine and it's designed as a desktop replacement, not a portable machine.

I also have a bunch of prior-generation equivalent machines. A whopping 17-inch, mondo-pound old Alienware, another heavy Asus, and so on. I replace the main machine about every 18 months or so to get as much performance as possible. Given the amount of work I have and the variety of my projects, any time I can save more than justifies the beef of the machine.

I use a laptop as my primary work machine in case I have to bring all my work on the road in an emergency. It's not fun, but it's a plan.

On the other hand, this weekend, I had the very rare opportunity for some fun travel. My wife had signed up for a workshop at a Florida resort and I had an actual, free weekend when I wasn't on urgent deadline. We decided it would be fun to go together.

I'm writing this now, in the lobby of a 96-year old classic Florida lakefront lodge. And I'm writing this on my new Chromebook.

Why a Chromebook?

To clarify, I have two primary work modes: project mode, and everything else. When I'm working on a project, I need all the performance I can get. Some deadlines are so tight that the additional power is necessary just to get the work in on deadline.

But the rest of my work consists of writing, browsing, keeping up with my social network duties, my dailing reading, email correspondence, grading and corresponding with students, and using Web-based apps.

For the past few months, I've been thinking about getting a cheap, throw-in-a-bag, almost disposable laptop. I've thought about some of the $349 Windows laptops that have been available, but they're too underpowered to do project work (run VMs, software development environments, Photoshop) and too bulky to be pleasant to carry for just the non-project work.

I also thought about taking my iPad with a keyboard, but my iPad cost almost $900. Add a $100 keyboard, and I'm tossing about a thousand bucks worth of equipment. That level of responsibility is something I can handle, but it's not relaxing. It would be like lugging my desktop laptop. It would be the thing most top of mind, not something to just grab and go with.

Also, the iPad doesn't do multiple windows, and I find it very difficult to write and reference source material unless I have at least two side-by-side windows.

The iPad also doesn't integrate all that well with my browsing environment. Yes, there are Buffer and Evernote apps, but they're locked into their own little app worlds. It's just not as nice as using Chrome on a laptop just like I use Chrome at my desk.

On the iPad, I can't log into the university grading system to help my students, but I can on the Chromebook. I can write, check email, and do a lot of the basic, non-programming, non-media work, non-project work.

Besides, for $249, I'm willing to sacrifice a little functionality.

Once again, let me be clear that I'm willing to compromise on a device that only meets my non-project needs because the device is very inexpensive. If I had to spend a lot more, I'd be far less inclined to accept the compromise.

And that brings me to what could have been with Windows RT and the Surface.

Consider the Officebook

The selling premise for the Chromebook (excepting the very expensive, uber-display Pixel, of course), is incredibly simple: it's Chrome, and Chrome only, on a laptop, for $249. That's the entire premise. Sure, there's a bare-bones desktop and file manager, but that's just to make the Chromebook workable. Really, it's just Chrome and only Chrome, in a portable $249 device.

Now, imagine if there were an Officebook. And imagine if the premise for it was as clear: it's Microsoft Office, and Office only, on a laptop, for $249.

As a product, Microsoft probably wouldn't have taken a $900 million write-down. Ask a typical buyer if they understand "It runs Office and only Office, but fer cheap" and they'll understand.

Then there's RT

But, if you compare that to Microsoft's pitch for the original Surface RT and the new, even less clearly named Surface 2, you see serious problems: "Well, it runs new Windows apps, but not all the Windows you're used to running, and it runs Office, but if you use Office for work, you have to buy Office again. And it's almost $500."

Seriously. That's still Microsoft's pitch. Worse, the original Surface RT didn't even run Outlook. It was a mobile device without decent email. It's almost as if Microsoft was taking a page from BlackBerry's Playbook (which, bafflingly, was also introduced without email).

The excuses

When the RT was introduced, one of the excuses for the lack of Outlook was the time it took to port the program over to the Arm processor. And, a year ago, that might have been true.

But now, Acer has introduced a $249 Chromebook, with 4GB RAM, running Intel's Celeron using Haswell silicon. That bad boy could even run full Windows 8, so it certainly could run Office.

Acer has proven that a Wintel machine can be built and sold for under $250. But Microsoft is selling its base machine for almost twice the price while confusing and misleading customers.

And boy, Microsoft is offering a confusing marketing message! In fact, it's even more confusing. Now there's a Surface and a Surface Pro -- and they're completely, totally different beasts, running completely, totally different software, with completely, totally different capabilities.

The Surface 2 (it no longer carries the RT branding) is a Windows RT machine, will run Office in desktop mode, but nothing else, and is limited to Metro apps. The Surface 2 Pro is a full Windows 8.1 machine that will run any Windows application, desktop or Metro. Even more confusing, the Surface 2 comes with Office (but not licensed for office use), but the Surface 2 Pro does not.

So, the so-called professional system doesn't include the professional's Office product, while the entry level machine does, but only sort of.

Does any of this make any sense? Especially compared to the Chrombook's message: it's Chrome, and Chrome only, on a laptop, for $249.

What could have been

Now, imagine if Microsoft somehow managed to make a $249 machine (after all, if Acer and Samsung could do it, so could Microsoft), And imagine if Microsoft called it the Officebook.

It runs Office and only Office (okay, also IE and a few apps -- which is basically the same theme as the Chromebook).

And imagine if Microsoft got off its weird licensing horse for the machine so buyers who wrote a work email at home weren't instantly in violation of their license.

Maybe Microsoft would have sold some. And maybe RT wouldn't be the mock-worthy target it has been for the past year. And maybe, even, the Surface Pro would stand out as a quite excellent Windows (real Windows) machine and not confuse the world.

Maybe, if only. Nah. It's Microsoft. Great products. Crappy, baffling marketing.

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