Chromebooks and the Cost of Complexity

While there is a question of degree, it seems quite certain that Chromebooks had a pretty good 2013. Many are attributing this to price – most Chromebooks cost $300 or less – and they’re almost certainly right. It seems like yet another case of disruption: a cheaper, inferior product enters the market against a competitor with margins to protect, and over time becomes “good enough”.

The path of disruption looks something like this:

Adapted from Figure 5-1 in the Innovatorʼs Solution, Christensen, Raynor
Adapted from Figure 5-1 in the Innovatorʼs Solution, Christensen, Raynor

The key thing to notice is that products improve more rapidly than consumer needs expand. This means that while the incumbent product may have once been subpar, over time it becomes “too good” for most customers, offering features they don’t need yet charging for them anyways. Meanwhile, the new entrant has an inferior product, but at a much lower price, and as its product improves – again, more rapidly than consumer needs – it begins to peel away customers from the incumbent by virtue of its lower price. Eventually it becomes good enough for nearly all of the consumers, leaving the incumbent high and dry.

Like I said, Chromebooks fit this pattern perfectly: they do a lot less than PCs, but at a much lower price. Still, though, that doesn’t explain why I love the Chromebook, why the Pixel is my favorite product of 2013, and why Microsoft is missing the point.

Before I started this blog, I wrote an email review of the $250 Samsung ARM-based Chromebook. I just added that review to the archives – you can read it here.

I was quite effusive in my praise:

It turns out nearly everything I use a computer for is easily accomplished in a browser (but for one thing, and we’ll get to that later), and there is no better computer if all you want to do is use a browser.

Stepping back, that sentence is obvious: anything that is custom-made for one thing is likely to be better than something that is general purpose, and so it is in this case. Using a Chromebook feels light; there’s no system overhead, no juggling windows, no worrying about updates. It’s really hard to describe but I’m trying hard, because this feeling of lightness is ever so close to joy and makes the Chromebook delightful.

To be clear, not only does the Chromebook do just about anything I would want to do on a computer, it does so with basically a 0% chance of my screwing something up, or not understanding what is happening. I can only imagine what the feeling is amongst those who are scared of computers.

Still, though, I ultimately concluded that I would stick with a regular laptop.

I’m sure it’s obvious that I’ve been rather smitten by the Chromebook, certainly much more so than I anticipated. But no, I won’t buy a Pixel. It turns out I have a DSLR camera, and I shoot in RAW and depend on Adobe Lightroom to import my photos. That doesn’t run on a Chromebook, and never will (for that matter, it doesn’t run on an iPad either). And so, my next big purchase will be a new laptop; 95% of what I will use it for could have been done on a Chromebook, but that 5% is a killer.

This is the part where I tell you this article is being written on a Pixel (as have the vast majority of the articles on this site). And I love it.

What I got wrong in that conclusion was the same mistake nearly everyone in technology makes: I assumed that, money being equal, having it all – or, more accurately, more than I needed – was inherently better than having less.

In disruption theory, the primary problem with the incumbent’s strategy is that the high-end product is simply too expensive relative to the increasingly good-enough new entry. But there is more going on than just price. Anytime you increase performance (which in this context, is perhaps better expressed as “features”), you are almost always trading away simplicity.

The Performace/Complexity Tradeoff
The Performace/Complexity Tradeoff

To take an extreme example, look at the iPhone: iPhone OS 1 was much less capable – no copy-and-paste, no multi-tasking, no app store – but it was also much simpler than any version that followed. And, as this example highlights, sometimes more complexity is a trade-off worth making.

The problem, though, comes when you overshoot your customer’s needs. In that case, it’s not simply that the additional performance is not valued by your customers; rather, the bigger problem is that the additional complexity that necessarily accompanies said performance is actively harmful to your customer’s user experience. Your product is not only becoming more expensive, but it’s actually becoming worse from your customer’s point-of-view.

The additional performance is not valued but the additional complexity is actively harmful to the user experience
The additional performance is not valued but the additional complexity is actively harmful to the user experience

Meanwhile, the new entrant may not have all of the required performance – like my Chromebook – but along with that missing performance comes additional simplicity. Paradoxically, the fact the new entrant has less-than-desired performance makes it even better from a user experience standpoint. And, when the performance gets close enough, that user experience advantage makes it an obvious choice over a higher end product that does more, in every sense of the word.

While the lack of performance may occasionally be annoying, it is offset by the increase in simplicity
While the lack of performance may occasionally be annoying, it is offset by the increase in simplicity

And so, that’s why I have a Pixel. Over the next few weeks after I wrote that review, I found myself continually picking up that little Samsung instead of a laptop. I realized I quite preferred the simplicity and clarity of Chrome OS, and given that, and given the important role that computers play in my life, why wouldn’t I buy the best hardware to run said OS? My old laptop suffices for the few moments I even bother to pull out my SLR.

Clearly Microsoft sees the threat: ad-time during the NFL playoffs does not come cheaply, yet they thought it the appropriate venue to run this:

There is a longer version on the Scroogled website, but the above clip has the pertinent line:

“It doesn’t have Windows, or Office”

It has less, yet because of the web it still has just about everything today’s consumers need. Moreover, because it has less, it’s vastly easier – and safer – to use.1 Once you include all of the variables, including the user experience, it’s not an equation that favors Microsoft either now or especially in the future, as the web becomes ever more capable even as Windows becomes ever more complex.

  1. This is also why the iPad so quickly disrupted PCs despite costing as much as a low-end laptop.