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 /

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.