In less than two years Satya Nadella has transformed Microsoft from incumbent under siege to tech pioneer, on multiple fronts. The change in stance since Steve Ballmer has been nothing short of remarkable.

One of Satya’s signature moves has been to open up Microsoft Office to other platforms, including Apple iOS, Google Android and Google Chrome. It was diametrically opposed to Ballmer’s approach of using Office as a drawcard for Microsoft Windows OS.

At first this seemed like a masterstroke. Extend the franchise by making it universal.

Now, however, Google is moving full pelt into hardware and preparing a global assault on the SME and enterprise PC fleet market. The Chrome for Work initiative will send masses of low-cost devices running Chrome OS into Microsoft’s home territory in an attempt to dethrone Windows for good.

And if the stats from IDC are to be believed, businesses will have plenty of reasons to switch to what is, in effect, a thin client environment for SaaS.

Three-year total cost of ownership is 61% lower than alternate PCs and tablets, a 49% lower device cost, a 74% lower device management and support cost, and a 53% lower deployment cost, according to an IDC white paper on Chrome in the education market.

The stats are similarly impressive for IT management. A 68% reduction in staff time managing devices, 93% less time deploying devices, 75% less time in managing security and a 92% reduction in time to troubleshoot, the paper found.

The prices for Chromebooks are insane. Samsung’s cheapest model, an 11-inch weighing 1.1kg and a battery life of 11 hours, costs US$189. And it runs Office.

Google Apps partners report reductions to IT costs of 40 percent to 70 percent for businesses that move to Google Apps in a PC environment. The savings of a combined Google Apps and Chrome shift would be even higher.

Sales reports reinforce the analysts’ findings. Chromebooks outsold Macs in the US education market for the first time in May this year, according to IDC.

“IDC estimates Apple's US Mac shipments to be around 1.76 million in the latest quarter, meaning Dell, HP, and Lenovo sold nearly 2 million Chromebooks in Q1 combined,” the Verge reported.

That was before Google announced that apps on the Android mobile platform – all 2.2 million – would be coming to Chromebooks too. Any app on your Android phone will sync to your Chromebook (or ChromeBox, the desktop unit).

The Verge shot a video of a Chromebook editing photos using Photoshop Express (for Android); pasting that photo into a Word document from Microsoft Office (for Android); and playing shoot-em-up space games (for Android) on the Chromebook’s touchscreen.

The photo file, Word doc and gaming data ran locally and natively on the Chromebook, the Verge claimed.

Microsoft is not the only one in Google’s sights. Tony Chadwick, a dyed-in-the-wool Apple fan who has started a Google services company called Chromeworx, believes it’s time to switch allegiances.

“The innovation mantra after Steve (Jobs) died has been taken up by Google. Apple’s model of cloud in the enterprise or business is just not workable,” Chadwick says. “Microsoft are coming at (cloud) at a million miles an hour but Google is still way ahead.”

Is Apple, with its focus on tech as luxury, really vulnerable to a tsunami of low-cost Chrome devices?

“I’ve been an Apple person for 30 years and I don’t want or need any Apple products. That sort of says it all to me,” says Chadwick.

Apple tends to run its own race. Microsoft vs Google will be the battle to watch – Satya versus Google’s Sundar Pichai. Two duelling, Indian-born CEOs determined to lead America’s greatest tech giants to glory.

Does Satya have a comeback? How will he protect the heartland? Microsoft’s awakened interest in hardware could hold the answers.

A version of this story first appeared on

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