Thoughts on loosening Redmond’s grip on your business
I started thinking about reducing my company’s dependency on Microsoft a few years ago. Contributing factors were frustration with the misguided Windows-as-a-service model, and the distraction of Microsoft throwing more and more mediocre and often unfinished bloat into Office 365. We eventually called time when it became clear that Microsoft was grooming Teams to become the next point of lock in. This coincided with us realising that the Microsoft ‘productivity solutions’ we had in place were actually complicating our lives, slowing us down and stifling innovation.
We ended up switching to what’s now called Google Workspace, which was a breath of fresh air. Suddenly the tech was out of the way and we could focus on getting stuff done – more collaboratively and efficiently, and with fewer distractions. Along the way, some PCs were inevitably swapped out for Macs. Where Windows continued to be used it was purely as an operating system, rather than as an environment to deliver that immersive ‘experience’ Microsoft seems intent on pushing people into, whether they want it or not.
But then we discovered a small company known as Neverware. It offered an operating system called CloudReady, which essentially allowed you to turn existing PCs into Chromebook clones. There were one or two limitations, but Neverware was enjoying some good success, especially in the US education market. We converted a few PCs to CloudReady, and began to experience the simplicity of the cloud client model. This got us further on our journey of independence from Microsoft, and ultimately into adding Chromebooks proper into our desktop computing mix.
And now Chrome OS Flex
Against this background, I was really pleased when Google acquired Neverware, but it all seemed to go quiet for a while. Then recently I noticed CloudReady had been reborn as Chrome OS Flex. At the time of writing, if you download and run what is now an official Google offering, it declares itself to be ‘CloudReady 2.0’. You can see that Google has had a hand in reworking it, though, and the core experience is now indistinguishable from a Chromebook from what I can see. Things like Android and Parallels support are not there, but Chrome OS Flex devices snuggle seamlessly into the Chrome Enterprise framework, which in turn integrates with Active Directory to ease the management of a mixed Google and Microsoft estate.
Although it’s still technically in Beta, I’ve been running Chrome OS Flex for about three weeks on a couple of older laptops with no issues. One of these has an Intel i7 Gen 6 processor and the other one has an i7 Gen 7. I mention this because both machines are very capable, with a lot of useful life left in them, but neither is endorsed nor supported for use with Windows 11. Sure, they could still run Windows 10, but with Microsoft’s seemingly arbitrary policy-making in this area, who knows what the future holds.
Converting older equipment like this to Chromebooks means you can replace machines at whatever pace suits you, while still benefiting from an up-to-date operating system. Chrome OS Flex also provides you with the opportunity to try the Google end user computing model at little or no direct cost, then ease yourself out of the Microsoft habit over time as we did.
Keeping it mixed – and agile
If you’re wondering where we are now as a company, Google Workspace is central to how we operate today, along with a range of other cloud services. We still subscribe to Office 365, partly because we need access to Excel to run some legacy applications, but also because as industry analysts, we need to stay up to date with what’s going on in the Microsoft world. Windows is now just one of several client operating systems we run, alongside MacOS, Chrome OS and even Linux in some scenarios. The ‘horses for courses’ principle is applied here.
Of course, I fully acknowledge that lots of companies actually like what Microsoft is doing with Windows and Office 365, and/or see benefit in the one-stop-shop approach and consistency across their end user computing estate. If you are starting to feel a little smothered, frustrated or locked-in, though, it’s worth taking steps to at least reduce your degree of dependency on Microsoft. It sometimes feels like Redmond owns the end user computing space, but it really doesn’t, and a lot more innovation is taking place outside of Microsoft than within it.
But don’t just swap one lock-in for another
All that said, you obviously need to be careful not to drift into lock-in with another vendor. Some of the stuff you find in Google Workspace, for example, is far from best-of-breed, so you wouldn’t want to use Google tools for everything. In our experience, however, once you shift out of the Microsoft-centric mindset, in which you rarely look outside of Office 365 and the broader portfolio, you become a lot more aware of the dangers that lurk alongside the opportunities. Or more to the point, the advantages of remaining open and vigilant to what’s on offer in the market as a whole.
Coming back to Chrome OS Flex, however, together with Google Workspace and Chrome Enterprise, it does provide a quick and easy way to start experimenting with how you might begin to loosen Microsoft’s grip on your thinking and your business. Watch this space for thoughts on other potential ways forward that I’ll be posting here soon.
Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.