Earth to Google: Chromebooks still aren't mainstream

commentary Google's got the Chromebook price point nailed, but until major missing pieces like apps fall into place, the browser-based laptop will be stuck in a tributary outside the mainstream.

Google really, really wants you to believe that the Chromebook is a laptop brand that has something for everybody. It's mainstream, the company says.

Maybe one day, but for now, the Chromebook is less mainstream than a BlackBerry.

In terms of price, Google's dead on. You can splurge on the Pixel, a gorgeously engineered touch-screen version of the Chromebook that lacks a single USB 3.0 or full-size HDMI port but sports a $1,299 entry-level price tag.

Or you can go low-end, shelling out $199 for the dive-bar low-end Acer C7 Chromebook, the snappier $249 Samsung Series 3 , or the new Hewlett-Packard Chromebook 11 , a $279 option that debuted on Tuesday at an event in New York.

It's this particular Samsung Chromebook that's been turning heads, at least in the sub-$300 laptop category. As of July, Chromebooks claimed about 5 percent of the total laptop market in North America, or between one-fifth and one-quarter of the sub-$300 category dominated by low-powered Netbooks.

Useful, helpful, but not mainstream Chromebooks are good in specific use cases. They make excellent laptops for schools, helped along by their physical keyboards which ensure that kids learn to type in the touch-screen era.

They're also good for secondary at-home or travel laptops. Their affordability makes them easy to write off if heavily damaged, and their browser-based Chrome OS, reliant on the cloud, means that you're not likely to lose files if the Chromebook gets stolen.

When asked about when Chromebooks will go mainstream, Google's vice president of product management for Chromebooks Caesar Sengupta insisted at this morning's HP Chromebook 11 event they already were.

"The Chromebook is reflecting the way people are changing the use of the computer," he said. "People don't really know what the cloud is, but essentially that's what they're all using."

But 5 percent in one geographic region is hardly an acceptable use of the term mainstream, even if people are responding well to the affordable sticker.

Much as the Nexus devices provide guideposts for what Android phones and tablets can look like, the Pixel is a beacon for other Chromebooks . The HP Chromebook 11 contains feature and design flourishes from the Pixel, such as the under-the-keyboard microphones to minimize typing noise, and the colored band on the back of the laptop case.

Limited by Chrome Powered by Chrome OS, the always-in-development operating system version of the Chrome browser, Chromebooks have lived and died by their latest updates. Those updates make the devices better on a regular schedule, but are still lacking.

The HP Chromebook 11 hits the Chromebook sweet-spot on price and size, and comes in two colors with five color accents. Sarah Tew/CNET

The gold (or is that champagne?) standard of tech devices creating a market from out of thin air is the iPhone, which really took off with the iPhone 3GS. Its affordable price point, breadth of apps, and unique design convinced people that they had to have one.

Google's figured out, perhaps by the accident of market forces, that Chromebooks can make an impact in the sub-$300 range. So the HP Chromebook 11 costs $279, even though it has the same ARM-based Samsung Exynos processor as the $249 Samsung. It offers a microUSB charging port, an interesting experiment that might be the first step towards standardizing laptop chargers.

"People want a thin, light, easy to use computer," said Sengupta.

But Chrome OS and Chrome for Windows just introduced support for Web apps last month, which presents a way to package Web sites in the style of native apps.

Although Chrome OS is excellent at delivering the Web, Chrome Apps are limited and lack the depth needed to convince people to abandon their Windows- and Mac- driven computers. Neither Chrome Apps nor the Web itself offer the kind of deep power tools that people are used to. Spreadsheets can still look wonky in Google Drive, and nothing in the cloud delivers the kind of robust image- and video-editing tools from the Adobe Creative Suite.

Mainstreaming Chromebooks The good news for Chromebooks is that Chromebook usage is growing, and Chrome OS improves over time. Hardware drivers noticeably got better from one version of the OS to the next in its first year, and new Chrome developments generally find their way into Chrome OS only six to eight weeks later. Chromebooks have utility, albeit in a circumscribed way, and they've got a price that the public has bought into.

The colored bar on the back of the HP Chromebook 11 first debuted on the high-end Chromebook Pixel. Sarah Tew/CNET

The bad news is that even three years in, they're not suitable replacements for Windows, Mac, or Linux laptops. They're also not tablet replacements. They can run just about any Web site, but they have limited offline functionality unless you pay extra for a 4G chip and a mobile data plan.

There's also the lingering question of what Google will say when Chromebooks actually can compete with other laptops? "They're even more mainstream now" isn't an answer. It just begs more questions.

Google and its deep coffers can throw money at Chromebooks for a long time, and perhaps that's the strategy: to keep Chromebooks going until the Web catches up to native code. It's also possible that Google's ideal laptop and the world's ideal laptop just don't match.

Either way, we're looking at several years of struggling Chromebooks as the Web catches up to native code. That should be nobody's definition of mainstream.

 

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