Chromebooks Have a ‘Leap of Faith’ Problem

Ever since Google launched the first Chromebooks two years ago, the company's vision for always-on, cloud-based computing has been a tough sell.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Ever since Google launched the first Chromebooks two years ago, the company’s vision for always-on, cloud-based computing has been a tough sell.

Now, we have proof of how tough it’s been. As Ed Bott at ZDNet reports, Chromebooks only account for 0.023 percent of Web traffic, according to NetMarketShare. Those stats jibe with an earlier report by (the admittedly unreliable) DigiTimes, which claimed that only 500,000 Chromebooks have been sold to date. While Samsung‘s $250 Chromebook has been living at the top of Amazon’s best-seller list for a half a year, overall usage doesn’t seem very high.

In fact, Windows RT, which has been panned as a commercial disappointment, has a greater share of usage than Chrome OS according to Bott. He concludes that it’ll be at least a few years before either operating system has a chance at mainstream appeal. That seems like a reasonable assessment.

Still, as someone who owns a Chromebook (Samsung’s $450 Series 5 550), and who has been enthusiastic about the concept, I want to think about why Google’s web-based operating system hasn’t taken off.

The overly simple answer is the one I’ve heard over and over: No one wants to buy a computer that only runs a web browser, when you could buy one that runs real software for roughly the same price.

The real answer, I think, is a bit more nuanced, and it has a lot to do with the current state of the PC market.

PC sales are tanking because households aren’t replacing all their old laptops or desktops. As Gartner has pointed out, families are relying on a shared PC for productivity, and in the meantime, they’re buying tablets or using their smartphones for casual computing.

Chromebooks can’t compete with tablets for that kind of use. The laptop design just doesn’t make as much sense when you’re on a couch or laying in bed, and the Chrome Web Store isn’t a suitable replacement for native apps.

Chromebooks are better as productivity devices–for sending e-mails, typing documents and doing web-based research. In other words, they’re competing with a laptop market in which people are waiting to upgrade their aging PCs instead of buying additional ones. So while Google has been pitching Chromebooks as great supplemental laptops, all evidence suggests that most people are fine with the one laptop they already have.

When the time for replacement does come, I personally know people who would be better-served by a Chromebook than they would by a comparably-priced Windows PC. These are people who spend the overwhelming majority of their time in a web browser, for whom the benefits of an instant-on, virus- and bloatware-free, low-cost, thin and light computer would far outweigh the drawbacks of not having traditional software. (I’m thinking of multiple older in-laws, in particular.)

But for these users, buying a Chromebook requires a leap of faith. It demands that they to learn a new interface–all the stuff that surrounds the Chrome browser itself, like the file browser and settings menu–and replace familiar software such as Microsoft Office with web-based alternatives such as Google Docs or Office Web Apps. It requires setting up Google Cloud Print instead of just plugging in the printer via USB, and using cloud storage or an external hard drive for archival purposes. These aren’t insurmountable obstacles, but for a novice user, it’s a safer bet to buy another traditional Windows laptop.

Perhaps that’s why Google is experimenting with the Chromebook Pixel, a high-end laptop with a screen that rivals Apple‘s Retina displays. The Pixel is unlikely to sell in significant quantities, but at least it appeals to power users who might be willing to take the plunge on a web-based operating system.

I tend to have a “whatever works for you” attitude about consumer electronics, so it doesn’t really irk me that Chromebooks aren’t a big hit. And while a tablet-oriented operating system like Windows RT needs lots of users to attract app developers, that’s not as crucial for Chromebooks, whose main attraction is the open web. I’ll be happy as long as Chromebooks continue to exist, and right now, PC makers seem happy to keep making them. Maybe someday, they’ll figure out how to convince lots of people to buy them.

12 comments
AdamCB
AdamCB

When discussing Chromebooks it's important to keep in mind that they are not meant to replace laptops.  They are not meant to be for every type of user.  Like with many things in technology (as in life), not everything is meant for everyone.

Chromebooks are meant for users that spend most of their time in a browser and want a device that's easy to use and starts up fast.  Sounds to me like that profile fits quite a few people.

That being said, not everyone is willing or able to give up on their Windows applications.  But there are solutions to overcome that obstacle.  For example, Ericom AccessNow is an HTML5 RDP client that enables Chromebook users to securely connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server and VDI virtual desktops, and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

AccessNow does not require any client to be installed on the Chromebook, as you only need the HTML5-compatible browser.

Check out this link for more info:
http://www.ericom.com/RDPChromebook.asp?URL_ID=708

Please note that I work for Ericom

teral
teral

Leap of Faith? what chromebooks need is a come back from the dead.

Windows RT have the advantage that metro apps run both RT and Windows 8, and windows 8 usage is huge, so develpers coding metro apps, can reach hundreds of millions users regardless if RT or x86.

ChromeOS eventually can run android apps, but then addition touchscreen and detachable keyboard, only rack up costs north of $300, loosing the low cost selling point.

paulbram
paulbram

Why does Windows RT need app developers while Chrome OS doesn't? By my count, they both include excellent web browsers out of the box. One just so happens to ALSO support running native apps in addition to websites. By this logic, would Windows RT would be better if it didn't include a store?

conmaggot
conmaggot

The concept is flawed. Most of my spreadsheets hold proprietary data. I'd never allow them to be stored in a cloud. 

Add to that poor Internet infrastructure and you've got a limited device. 

I've never given them a real look since I found the design intent was to pull everything up into Cloud storage. However, if the hardware is any good, I'd think the best use for a Chrome book would be wiping out the OS and replacing it with Linux.

Once you've got some security on it, you can open an Internet connection when you need one. And close it when it's no longer needed. 

This 'always on' idea is ridiculous.

Luscus
Luscus

This has always been the pipe dream of Sundar Pichai I remember him pitching the first iteration of chrome and he made it look like a viable solution to your computing needs (although he seemed to believe it would solve all your computer needs, and maybe when Big Bro. Google takes over the WEB World, that is all we will need),  I agree that some people just use their laptop for internet use and at $100 or $200 dollars that could have been a practical solution, but with a price tag of $1300 NO ONE is biting. Nope that dog don't bark! And for$200 it is preferable to buy a 2nd or 3rd gen Tablet with a 7 to 10 hour battery life and great portability.  Now if Google gave me one for free I may use it once in a while.....


PaulDirks
PaulDirks

Where I live I can't even count on the power staying on for a week straight, let alone having robust, always on internet. A Chromebook would therefore be an ideal paperweight and little else.



IntangibleGuy
IntangibleGuy

The author might explain how one actually prints a document, when a Chromebook is the only device you have (except for the printer of course). Set up "cloud printing" ... what's that suppose to mean ?

Chromebook is the ultimate useless & pointless device. It's like an Android or iOS device deprived of all the apps. I wouldn't take it even for free.