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Cheap Windows 'Chromebook killers' lack the way to slay

Microsoft is pushing inexpensive laptops to contain the growing Google-fueled threat. But they could wind up as extinct as the late-naughts netbook.

The Acer Chromebook 13 is the first with Nvidia's K1 chip. Sarah Tew

At their introduction in 2011, Google's Chromebook laptops seemed like folly. Riding high on an Android mobile operating system that was taking over the world, Google was nevertheless creating a Web-based OS that couldn't run Android apps, or indeed, virtually any locally resident app (i.e., one meant to live on a machine's hard drive). Instead they ran Web apps, and if your Internet connectivity disappeared, so did your productivity.

But the company had certainly tapped into something. At about $200, Chromebooks were inexpensive like netbooks, the miniaturized laptops with low-end configurations that, starting in 2007, had become a fad with their roughly $300 price point. And Chromebooks were really what netbooks should have been: notebooks that were all about the Net. Setting aside the connectivity caveat -- which isn't much of an issue in locations such as homes with broadband, many offices, and college campuses -- Chromebooks provide access to a wealth of content and productivity solutions that meet many users' needs most of the time. While they haven't cut much into Windows' market share, they have made inroads in education and at the low end. Virtually every major Windows laptop maker now offers Chromebooks.

And that, of course, has caught the attention of Microsoft, which might have had an opportunity to position against Chrome OS with Windows RT, its low-cost, ARM-based OS for tablets and hybrid laptops that seems to be in limbo at the moment. With limited native apps available, Microsoft could have played up the capable "modern" Internet Explorer browser as an OS (as Google had its Chrome browser), along with an array of Web-based apps.

But this approach would have been problematic for a couple of reasons. First, unlike Google's Docs and Sheets that work well in Chrome OS, Microsoft Office is still not available in a "modern" environment. More importantly, though, Microsoft still wants developers to create native Windows apps that are optimized for the Windows platform and compete against those for iOS and Android. If the company had pushed a system built around Web-based apps, it would have ceded a case for Windows at a vulnerable time.

Chrome OS is only growing as a threat, in many ways. It's taking advantage of faster x86 chips from Intel for users who want performance in addition to simplicity. Intel also plans to support Chrome OS in two-in-one devices with detachable keyboards. And devices such as Acer's Chromebook 13 are tapping into leading-edge ARM architectures such as Nvidia's Tegra K1. Finally, Google is pushing Web developers to make their Chrome apps available offline and has finally allowed selected Android apps to run on Chrome OS.

HP and Dell can't be too excited about this, either. Unlike in the netbook's heyday, where there was the threat of smaller companies such as Asus and new entrants such as Hannspree and Sylvania, all the major PC companies already have hands in the Chromebook game. Indeed, they seem comfortable with taking Chromebooks upstream.

And so, with Windows ill-equipped to match the chip support, versatility and simplicity of Chromebooks at the low end, we're likely to see history repeat itself: these supposedly Chromebook-killing cheap PCs will do more to cannibalize pricier machines than they will Chromebooks, a fate that will lead to abandonment as Microsoft's hardware partners push more-powerful and profitable PCs.