How Chromebooks Can Escape the Netbook's Fate

Attendees inspect the Google Chromebook Pixel laptop during the Google I/O developers conference at the Moscone Center on May 15, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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 News. Low prices, which powered netbook sales, are probably a big reason for growing Chromebook sales as well. Could the market for Chromebooks quickly tank, as it did for netbooks? I doubt it.

It’s easy to find further similarities between Chromebooks and netbooks. They’re both smaller than traditional laptops, are lightweight, and often run for six or more hours on a single charge. These features helped Chromebooks account for from 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. Significant differences between the two devices, however, make 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 device than the heavy, bulky laptop. They ran Windows XP, which worked well on the low-powered chips. Bland at first, designs quickly improved as PC makers jumped into the fast-growing market. But they weren’t really an innovative new device: Netbooks offered the traditional WinTel experience in a small, low-priced form factor.

The Chromebook is a different beast, though few realize it. The common thought is that the devices are “just a browser,” which is far too simplistic a 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 stand-alone Web apps, hardware access, and software originally coded in traditional programming languages.

Put a different way, Netbooks promised more of the same old computing past while Chromebooks offer a possible computing future. I say possible only because it’s not yet clear if Google’s Chrome/Chrome OS strategy will attract enough application developers to keep expanding the platform.

Moreover, the netbook’s quick death came at the hands of a forward-looking device. As the iPad—and eventually other tablets—were introduced to consumers, they started to rack up sales growth, killing demand for similarly priced netbooks. 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 encounter some other device that would keep consumers from purchasing Google-powered machines. Tablets work well as browsers and for running mobile apps, but few provide the optimal experience that can be had with a Chromebook. Wearables are supplementary devices and can’t replace traditional computers. At this point, there’s no device now, or on the near horizon, that could displace the Chromebook the way 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; 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.

Again, Chromebooks are more than just browsers. With every new Chrome OS release (every 6 weeks or so) the operating system gets better, with more features and usability improvements. Essentially, we’re watching a new computing platform develop and mature—something we never saw with netbooks. Even now, the devices meet the most users’ computing needs and will only get better with more apps and OS-like features.

Am I overly bullish on Chromebooks? Perhaps. 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 supplement it 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. This is no flash in the pan.

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