Why We're Heading Towards a World Without Windows

In early May, Windows 10 hit a significant milestone, as installations surpassed 300 million new and old devices. But there's two troubling trends that signal that we're headed towards a Windows-Less world.

First, Chromebooks recently outsold Macs in the U.S. for the first time. The numbers seem relatively small, at nearly 2 million Chromebooks sold in the most recent quarter, but it's where they're being used that could make desktop Windows irrelevant for an entire generation.

Second, Microsoft just cut 1,850 jobs in its smartphone business, leaving the future of Windows-powered phones in serious doubt. 

Lets start with Google's Chrome OS laptops. "Chromebooks are largely a U.S. K-12 story," IDC analyst Linn Huang told The Verge, referring to the huge momentum Google's devices have in schools. My 12-year-old daughter received a Dell Chromebook when she entered middle school, and ever since then, she's barely picked up the cheap Windows-powered HP Stream we gave her a year ago. Everything she needs for doing her homework is online.

My 8-year-old son has been using Chromebooks at school for the last few years as well, and has barely seen or touched Windows. In January Chromebooks surpassed 51 percent of devices sold into the K-12 market. "Chromebooks outsold not just Macs/iPads but Windows as well," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD Group.

MORE: A Future Without Windows Is a Dystopian Nightmare

At some point today's kids may "graduate" to a Windows machine, but when you grow up with Chrome OS and it's easy and familiar, there might not be much incentive to switch. Just this week, Google made its cloudcentric platform a lot more versatile, announcing that you'll soon be able to download Android apps in Chrome OS as well as use them when you're offline.

As tomorrow's kids enter the workforce, surely they'll want to use a "real" laptop as opposed to a Chromebook, right? Not necessarily.

At its Google I/O conference, the company demonstrated how you'll be able to edit photos using the Photoshop Mix app (complete with touchscreen support) as well as play games like Clash of Clans.

Baker doesn't believe that Chromebooks are a threat to Microsoft's OS anytime soon, as Windows laptops soundly beat Chromebooks during the critical back-to-school season, exactly when high school and college students snap up their next machines. But the first big Chromebook generation hasn't entered that life stage en masse yet. 

As tomorrow's kids enter the workforce, surely they'll want to use a "real" laptop as opposed to a Chromebook, right? Not necessarily. Devices like the new HP Chromebook 13 are designed to attract millennials with a MacBook-thin design, and it can power two displays at once and — yes — run full Windows desktop apps via virtualization software.

"All the OEMs are looking for growth, and selling Chromebooks to businesses can help with that," said Baker.  "If Dell can make a play to business with a $700 Chromebook, that might change the equation."

The Windows Phone Disaster

Meanwhile on the phone front, a robust 67 percent of U.S. teens own iPhones, according to Piper Jaffray, and a whopping 74 percent of young folks surveyed said they would make the iPhone their next purchase. Microsoft is barely in the phone game at the moment, with its market share now at an abysmal 0.7 percent (according to Gartner).

Microsoft has just taken a whopping $950 write-off as a result of streamlining its smartphone business while letting 1,850 people go. In total, the company wasted $8 billion on the failed Nokia acquisition.

A Surface Phone could turn things around, but it will have a very tough hill to climb.

MORE: Chromebooks vs. Windows 10 Laptops - What Should You Buy?

As phones and PCs start to converge, Windows is being left out of the mix. "We think the market long-term morphs into a large screen computing device (10 inches or so and larger) and a portable/mobile computing device like an iPhone," Baker said. "Windows is hard to beat right now in that large screen device segment, and the threat there is much more from Apple than it is from Chromebook."

To be fair, Windows powers the Xbox One, which millions of kids enjoy every day, and Microsoft has in the pipeline the Windows 10-powered HoloLens, an amazing wearable holographic computer that could transform the way we learn, communicate, collaborate and play.

But at least for now, the vast majority of people experience Windows through a PC. As more and more kids use Chromebooks and iPhones and ignore Microsoft's OS, we could be heading towards a world without Windows.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.