Microsoft's 'CloudBooks' to step up the fight against Chromebooks

Posted Apr 17, 2017 by James Walker
Microsoft has announced a new hardware event for early next month in which it's widely expected to switch the focus from its premium Surface devices to low-cost education PCs. The company will unveil a range of Windows laptops to rival Google Chromebooks.
HP ProBook x360 11 Education Edition
HP ProBook x360 11 Education Edition
HP / Microsoft
The long-rumoured event was made official last week. Microsoft's invitations to the New York-based conference include the hashtag "#MicrosoftEDU," strongly hinting at the topic of discussion. Microsoft doesn’t usually host spring hardware announcements, generally launching Surface products later in the fall.
Microsoft is believed to be building a new strategy to take on Chromebooks. Google has seen made unprecedented gains in the education sector, converting scores of schools across the world to its cloud-based Chrome OS platform. Although Microsoft's Windows 10 continues to appeal with its new education-focused features, the strength of Google's upstart platform has led Microsoft to think bigger.
Earlier this year, rumours began to circulate about a Windows 10 "Cloud Shell" meant to be a lightweight, scaled-down version of Windows. It only supports Universal Windows apps from the Windows Store, like the ill-fated Windows RT. Initially, there was confusion over Windows 10 Cloud's purpose but over the past few months its role has become much clearer.
Windows 10 Cloud blends the best of Chrome OS into the Windows ecosystem. Lightweight, based in the cloud and with locked-down app support, it's a clear rival to Google's now well-established platform. It's now known that Windows 10 Cloud will support traditional desktop apps too, albeit in a limited form.
Seen in the light of Windows 10 Cloud, the purpose of Microsoft's new hardware event becomes clear. It won't be Surface or Surface Phone taking the headlines: Microsoft is likely to instead concentrate on sub-$300 PCs built to withstand a classroom environment. The company will be aiming to match Google on price and educational support features, giving schools a Windows-based alternative to Chrome OS.
It's unlikely to be a coincidence that long-time Microsoft veteran Joe Belfiore stepped back into the limelight as the event was announced. Belfiore took a year's vacation from the company in October 2015 to travel the world with his family. He has worked across most of Microsoft's major businesses and projects during his 25 years at the company. Before his extended departure, he had most recently been leading the development of Windows Phone and then Microsoft's new Edge web browser.
Belfiore returned to Microsoft six months ago but he has remained largely silent since. Last week, he spoke to Mashable about his sabbatical and coming back to work at Microsoft, announcing his new role at  the company. Alongside his continued work on Edge and the wider Windows ecosystem, Belfiore is now Microsoft's Windows education sponsor and advocate, suggesting he's involved with what's coming next.
Commenting on the appeal of Chromebooks, Belfiore noted that schools have been quick to appreciate the benefits. He hinted that Microsoft is working on a Chromebook threat, suggesting the improvements made in the Windows 10 Creators Update around hardware requirements will enable the price of devices to fall.
Belfiore also noted it's important children grow up around the devices they'll use at work and beyond school. In the vast majority of instances, these will still be Windows-powered machines. Outside of education, Google's Chromebooks haven't yet met with widespread success and Microsoft still has opportunities to pull schools back down to Windows. It will explain how it's tackling the Chromebook concept at its event on May 2.