Maybe the Point of Chromebooks Isn’t Chromebooks

Even if the Chromebook never steals much market share from conventional PCs, it could accomplish important goals for Google.

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Here at Google’s I/O conference, it’s safe to say that many attendees entered yesterday morning’s keynote expecting that it would involve the announcement of at least one or two major new gadgets. It didn’t, unless you count the pure-Android version of Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 that Google will begin selling on June 26. And the one gadget which was doled out to attendees, the Chromebook Pixel, wasn’t an I/O debutante: it was announced back in February.

Some of the folks I chatted with after the keynote were disappointed by its lack of gadgetry. I wasn’t. As my colleague Jared Newman explains, this year’s keynote was mostly devoted to building out existing Google services and software — search, Android, Google Maps, Google+ and more — in ways which aim to make them more useful and appealing. The stuff the company has in store looks meaty and ambitious; add it all up, and it matters more than a new tablet or phone would have.

And even though Google didn’t announce any new Chromebooks, I think I left the keynote with a better understanding of why Google thinks Chromebooks matter.

Almost four years after Google unveiled Chrome OS, it’s had, at most, a modest impact. Chromebooks are hits on and have gained at least some traction at brick-and-mortar stores. There’s a market for these things, but they’re not going to drum conventional PCs out of business anytime soon.

I wonder if Google might be perfectly fine with the possibility that Chromebooks will wind up occupying a niche rather than changing the world. When the company announced at the keynote that conference attendees were getting Chromebook Pixels, it said that the idea was to encourage development of great apps. But there really aren’t such things as Chromebook apps — that’s the whole point of a Chromebook, which offers a browser as its user interface and the Internet as its back end.

If a developer uses a Chromebook to create something cool, it’ll be a web app — one which will also work in Chrome and, one hopes, any other modern browser. Great web apps make the web better. The better the web is, the better it is for Google, a company which makes more money as the web becomes more essential. That’s true whether someone’s using a Chromebook or not.

So maybe the point of Chromebooks isn’t the Chromebooks themselves and how well they sell, but the degree to which they nudge the world towards a web-centric view of personal computing. Judged that way, they might already be a success — which is a possibility I’d never even considered until now.

MORE: Complete TIME Tech Coverage of Google I/O