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Like netbooks of old, Chromebooks are the fastest growing PC segment. What’s different?

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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(s goog). At a time when PC sales are falling, Google Chromebooks(s goog) 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.

Image 1 for post Acer's $99 netbook can actually cost you $1,540. Should you get it?( 2008-12-12 14:27:58) Netbooks were designed to help sell more Intel(s intc) chips and Windows(s msft) 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.

Pixel gaming

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.

Android on PixelAm 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.

16 Responses to “Like netbooks of old, Chromebooks are the fastest growing PC segment. What’s different?”

  1. John S

    Chromebooks are tablets with built in keyboards. Or rather a inexpensive way to access the web, send email, video chat and watch video. I see them less then a netbook in that they do not run a full OS per say as netbooks ran Windows XP then Windows 7 and could easily run any flavor of Linux and could accept most peripherals as plug and play with built in drivers. Many of the netbooks eventually were priced about like a Chromebook. So in my opinion your actually paying a bit more or at least the same as a netbook for less OS. Having owned a netbook and a Samsung Chromebook I would say neither should get high praises as a do all PC. They both are entry level devices that perform minimally compared to more expensive choices. I would say that with most tablets too. But that’s probably not going to affect some who don’t really push their devices very hard or insists on multi tasking with several applications at once. Netbook’s had their place in the PC system but quickly died out after users realized they were not enough. I have no doubt Chromebook’s could face the same fate.

  2. Sherman Nicodemus

    I was among those in 2009. Netbooks were going to be a really big deal and education. Your point is well made that iPads displaced much of the enthusiasm for netbooks. As I’ve heard you say on the Commutist podcast, the web is so much more mature today than it was in 2009 in terms of cloud-based apps, mobilized video, and more. The eight second start up time and lack of need to image hard drives in chrome books is a huge reason we’re going to continue to see them explode in the education market specifically. Apple may add individual logins to iOS at some point, but they haven’t yet and I haven’t heard any hints of this coming. From a school computing standpoint, it is essential that students login and have access to all of their stuff. I think students equipped with Chromebooks and either their own smartphone or a checkout device like an iPad or iPod Touch from the library is a very compelling one to one situation.

    I definitely agree Chromebooks are a different animal and are going to see a much longer life than netbooks did. My Dell Mini 10 is only still valuable to me because it runs Mac OS as a hackintosh. My chromebook, on the other hand, is awesome and useful to everyone in our family with a Gmail account.

  3. I like the idea of a Chromebook as a replacement for my underpowered and aging Ubuntu Linux netbook but am concerned that web based photo editin resources won’t suffice for the frequent use I make of the netwbook for local editing of the many nature photos I take. The inherent latency in browser and cloud based editing tools that don’t have local storage concerns me. Am I wrong about this? (Chromebook would suffice for my other uses.)

  4. Still hanging on to my 10″ HP 210 Mini Kevin! There’s something to be said for a proper Windows 7 machine that’s under 3 lbs, runs a full 8 hours on a charge, offers all the ports and jacks I need, and let’s me install a fast and roomy 512GB SSD.

    No tablet or chromebook can come close to matching a high-end netbook.

  5. libssd

    @hj : Google is offering Pi million dollars in rewards to anybody who can compromise Chrome OS security. You’re welcome to try your hand, but nobody has collected much money yet.

  6. gotjuiceblog

    We are homeschool family and more and more curriculum is online. Instead of buying one desktop for $500-$600 we were able to buy two chromebooks for each student. They can do everything from that. Love the speed, security and even the offline features. The kids have yet to find things they can’t do.

  7. Love my Chromebook, the chrome OS gives some PC capabilities while leaning towards a tablet like operating system. It’s a great device, you don’t need a lot of the applications a PC gives you.

  8. I was in the beta program for the first Chromebooks. I used it for a while, but I couldn’t feel comfortable doing some tasks. For instance, tweaking 120 photos in iPhoto is a breeze, but trying to do the same thing in Flickr would take considerably longer. Listening to my Library of music–stored locally on my laptop–when I don’t have connectivity, well, it just isn’t possible.

    Which leads me to my point. It sounds like the expectation is that Chrome OS will get better by becoming more like a traditional OS… so why not just use a traditional OS? It’s not like you can’t use web apps and web services on a traditional OS. But you can’t install traditional software on a Chromebook…

    • Good points but have you used Chrome OS lately? It’s come a long way in short time and very much so since the CR-48 program. It’s actually pretty simple to tweak photos now; I can do it as quickly as I could in iPhoto. The editing options are a bit limiting though. Listening to locally stored music works just fine; no connectivity needed.

      To your point on Chrome OS becoming more like a traditional OS so why use it: Because it’s getting the important OS features without all of the OS overhead. It’s still wicked fast, simple and lets you do more with each iteration. To me, that’s the important factor here. I’m not suggesting it’s for everyone (or even for you) but I think it has a strong future ahead of it. Thanks!

  9. johnkzin

    “Netbooks were designed to help sell more Intel chips and Windows licenses ”

    Kind of a bold/revisionist statement given that the second half of the sentence isn’t true, don’t you think? (windows licenses weren’t part of the early netbook products, not until after MS got jumpy about how well the platform was doing, and they weren’t getting any money out of it)

  10. McLars

    Netbooks should get a little more credit. They were an evolutionary step toward lighter, cheaper, more mobile computing. Consumers and producers alike learned a lot from them, changing the market. They may be a flash in the pan, but an important one. I also think Chromebooks are the future (just picked up a second one today), but give netbooks their due. They weren’t a mistake.

  11. Joel McLaughlin

    You know why I think Chromebooks work? Because some people just want/need the web and nothing else. It’s appliance computing at it’s best. It’s HARD to mess up a Chromebook. Netbooks were just like the PC’s they replaced because that’s what they were. Chromebooks are different.