It’s deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say: A few years ago netbooks were the latest craze and now it’s the Chromebook. At a time when PC sales are falling, Google Chromebooks are a bright spot, with NPD Group’s Stephen Baker forecasting 10 percent growth in 2013, says Bloomberg. Low prices powered netbook sales and are likely a big reason for growing Chromebook sales as well. Could the market for Chromebooks quickly tank, just like it did for netbooks? I doubt it.
Similarities and differences
It’s easy see other similarities between Chromebooks and netbooks. They’re both smaller than traditional laptops, are lightweight and often run for 6 or more hours on a single charge. These features helped Chromebooks account for between 20 percent to 25 percent of the sub-$300 laptop market in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2013, according to NPD’s data. There are significant differences, however, between the two devices, and that makes me more optimistic about this trend.
Netbooks were designed to help sell more Intel chips and Windows licenses while giving consumers a more portable computing environment than heavy, bulky laptops. They ran Windows XP, which worked well on the low-powered chips. Bland at first, designs quickly improved — as best as possible for a small laptop — as PC makers jumped into the fast growing market. But they weren’t really an innovative new device: They offered the traditional WinTel experience in a small, low-priced form factor.
Just a browser… that can also run apps
Chromebooks are a different beast, even if most people don’t yet realize it. The common thought is that the devices are “just a browser,” which is a far too simplistic view. I’ve already explained why in detail: Chrome, the most used browser and Chrome OS for Chrome devices are together a platform of Google’s own making, complete with support for standalone web apps, hardware access and software originally coded in traditional programming languages.
Put another way: Netbooks were more of the same old computing past while Chromebooks are a possible computing future. I say possible, only because it’s not year clear if Google’s Chrome / Chrome OS strategy will attract enough application developers to grow the platform.
Unlike the netbook, there’s no other device to displace Chromebooks yet
Ironically, the netbook died a quick death mainly due to another forward-looking device. As the iPad, and eventually other tablets were introduced to consumers, they started to rack up sales growth, killing demand for a similarly priced netbook. Instead of the same old Windows experience, consumers put their purchase dollars behind all new mobile operating systems and apps.
For the same to happen to Chromebooks, we’d need to see some other device that would keep consumers from purchasing Google-powered devices. Tablets work well as browsers and for running mobile apps, but most of them don’t yet provide the optimal experience that can be had with a Chromebook. Wearables are a supplementary device and can’t take the place of traditional computers. At this point there’s no device now, or on the near horizon that could displace the Chromebook like tablets displaced the netbook.
In fact, NPD’s data suggests that money that would have been spent on new laptops or traditional PCs is now being spent on Chromebooks because they’re taking the place of standard computers. Apps are still important, but it’s possible for many computing activities to be done right in the browser.
Chrome OS is a totally new computing platform
Again, Chromebooks are more than just the browser though. With every new Chrome OS release — and they occur every 6 weeks or so — the operating system gets better and better with more features and usability improvements. Essentially, we’re watching a new computing platform develop and mature right now with Chromebooks; something we never saw with netbooks. And even now, the devices meet the majority of most users computing needs; it will only get better with more apps and OS-like features.
Am I overly bullish on Chromebooks? Perhaps, but I believe strongly in the concept, which I tested five years ago. Back then, I took a 60-day challenge to use the web solely for my work and personal computing needs. It was a bit of chore, but I did it. These days, it’s not a chore for my computing activities at all. I use a Chromebook full-time for work and often for personal use, although I do supplement the device with my smartphone and a tablet.
Perhaps I’m an outlier or maybe my computing needs are unlike most of the population. Either way, I expect Chromebook sales to keep growing in a market that long outlasts that of the netbook, which was a historical flash in the pan.