In a Computerworld article that I came across via Scripting News, I see that the number of Chromebooks sold in 2013 has increased significantly. Through November, Chromebooks account for 21% of all notebook computer sales, 10% of all computer and tablet sales. I helped those sales numbers with my purchase of the Acer C720 Chromebook.
Both Computerworld and Dave Winer frame the news in the context of what it means to Microsoft, but I think the bigger question to ask is, what does the increase in Chromebook ownership mean for personal computing?
By the way, I think the answer to the question of what does this mean to Microsoft is obvious and they already know it. Microsoft has to stop being “the” Windows company, and we are seeing that strategy being played out with Microsoft’s transition to a devices and services company. Frankly, I think Microsoft would be better served to go back to their heritage of being a software company, for example by making Microsoft Office available for every platform, but it seems now no one wants to be a software company.
Back to the bigger question, what does Chromebooks, or rather Chrome OS, mean to personal computing? The thought exercise is even more interesting because Chrome OS is made by Google who also makes Android.
Android runs apps designed to run and be stored on personal devices, but usually provide more functionality with a connection to the Internet. Chrome OS runs web apps designed to run and be stored on servers that usually require a connection to the Internet in order to even run. Google does provide a way to package web apps so they can be stored on and run from personal devices.
In other words, Android is the latest incarnation of the traditional personal computer operating system model, while Chrome OS can be thought of as the latest incarnation of the even older mainframe computing model. Android and Chrome OS are both considered new, yet follow old and opposite computing models, and come from the same company, Google.
In my opinion increasing sales of Chromebooks is the continuation of a shift in personal computing from being driven by an industry taking advantage of Moore’s Law to an industry being forced to listen to users happy with “good enough.” The shift began with the low price of netbook computers, but is also fueled by users tired of dealing with malware and viruses, which lead to constantly needing to worry about software updates.
The risk is that Chromebooks may have as limited a life as netbooks. Netbooks became popular because of their low price, but they relied on the “Moore’s Law” operating systems that do nothing to address the software update treadmill and are designed to take advantage of ever faster computer processing and memory.
Google does not want Chromebooks to get the stuck with the low-price only advantage that netbooks had, which is why they released the high end, high priced, Chromebook Pixel. The Pixel is a Chromebook that runs on high end hardware and costs $1299.
Why would anyone buy a Pixel? When you consider that for the same price or less one can buy a Macbook Air, or any one of several different notebook computers, it is hard to understand why someone would spend $1299 to buy a Pixel. Yet, many people have bought the Pixel, and while many cite the Pixel’s beautiful screen and over all hardware design, the most compelling argument for it is that there is less time and headache involved with keeping the Pixel up to date.
Pixel owners don’t seem to need to worry about malware and viruses. The argument is that if for roughly the same price you can get all the hardware features of a “traditional” notebook computer, be able to use it to do the same computing tasks as with a “traditional” notebook computer, but not have the same headaches that come with maintaining a “traditional” notebook computer, why would one buy a “traditional” notebook over a Chromebook?
I am skeptical that companies will have much success selling high end, high priced Chromebooks. In the end, it is the low price that attracts people to buy a Chromebook at Amazon.com rather than a Macbook Air at Apple.com. The question is, will the shift from “Moore’s Law” computing to “good enough” computing stick? When you take in to account the popularity of tablets along with Chromebooks, I think the answer is yes.
In my opinion, Chrome OS’s place in personal computing is as the keyboard required device. People who need or prefer a keyboard for computing tasks will find Chromebooks and the apps they run to be good enough to get the job done.