A few weeks ago, Microsoft released a commercial trashing Google’s Chromebook laptops. It’s one of those man-on-the-street schticks where a Microsoft guy goes up to strangers and asks them loaded questions about which device they’d prefer — a Chromebook or Windows 8 laptop. Every use case is skewed to favor the Windows device, of course. (Want to use Office? You can’t do that on a Chromebook!)
Microsoft even built a whole site dedicated to Chromebook-bashing.
The whole thing was a real noodle-scratcher.
Why was a personal computing giant like Microsoft going after Google’s Chromebooks? It felt like Microsoft was punching down at a niche player, not going after the serious competitors (like Apple) that matter.
Then things started to get a bit more clear.
While we don’t have precise numbers, we do have two new data points that show significant consumer interest in Chromebooks:
- Last week, research firm NPD released a report saying 21% of laptops sold this year through November were Chromebooks. (There are a few caveats to the report, such as the fact that NPD doesn’t analyze direct channel sales, as analyst Benedict Evans notes on Twitter. Still, it’s clear that there was a surge in Chromebook sales this year.)
- Then Amazon released its annual list of mind-boggling holiday sales stats. The one that stuck out? Two out of the three top-selling laptops on Amazon during the holidays were Chromebooks. The other was a laptop/tablet Windows 8 hybrid made by Acer.
If you’re unfamiliar, Chromebooks run Google’s desktop operating system called Chrome OS. Chrome OS is based on the Chrome Web browser many of you probably use already. With a Chromebook, you do just about everything in the Chrome browser and through Google’s online services. Gmail.com is your email app. Google Drive, Google’s online storage service, is your virtual hard drive for files and documents. You store your photos in Google+. And so on.
I’ll admit it. I was highly skeptical that Google’s Chromebooks could ever be successful when they first launched. (I’m not saying they’re successful now, either. I’m just saying they appear to be gaining momentum.) Early Chromebooks were pretty much useless unless you were connected to the Internet, but things have improved since then as Google added more desktop-like features to the operating system. Earlier this year, I was able to use Google’s top-of-the-line Chromebook, the Pixel, for two weeks straight and never had a problem. I even did my taxes on it.
So, why are people suddenly buying a bunch of Chromebooks?
I can’t speak for every Chromebook owner, but I can give you anecdotal evidence based on my own experience with Chromebooks and knowledge of how most people use computers these days.
First of all, they’re cheap.
You can get a Chromebook, like this one from Acer, for as little as $199. That’s $800 cheaper than the cheapest MacBook. But if you look at the way people use computers these days, there aren’t many differences in what the two machines can do.
Unless you work from home, chances are pretty good you use your laptop for emailing, basic Web browsing and Facebook sharing, and watching some YouTube or Netflix videos. Chromebooks can handle all that just as well as any Windows 8 laptop or MacBook, so why spend hundreds more if you don’t have to?
Meanwhile, if you’re like most people, you’re probably relying more on your smartphone or tablet for basic computing than you’re old laptop. That’s part of the reason why PC sales have collapsed over the last few years. People would rather upgrade their phone and tablet every other year while their laptops gather dust. And if you do want a traditional PC, you likely don’t want to spend a hundreds extra on something like a Windows 8 laptop that doesn’t offer much more than a Chromebook. A cheap Chromebook even makes a tempting alternative to an iPad Air, which starts at $499.
As many have pointed out already, it seems like Chromebooks have the potential to fill the hole left by netbooks when they died off some time around 2010. Netbooks, which were small, cheap computers running Windows, had a brief surge in popularity in the mid 2000s, but quickly died off in favor of light and thin laptops like Apple’s pricier MacBook Air. Netbooks were cheap, usually $300 or so, but they also had tiny screens and keyboards, which didn’t necessarily make them strong alternatives to regular laptops.
So it’s easy to see why there’s been a rise in Chromebooks this year. They’re in the same price range as netbooks, but more versatile. Plus they’re constantly updated, whereas many netbooks ran the outdated Windows XP operating system.
As Dave Winer wrote over the weekend, Microsoft missed an opportunity to capitalize on netbooks when it had a chance. Now its manufacturing partners like Acer and Samsung are turning to its rival Google and its Chrome operating system.
No wonder why Microsoft has gone on the defensive.