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Google Chromebooks score in schools but slow to catch on elsewhere

Research firm Gartner says Chromebook sales will hit 7.3 million this year, but most of those sales will come from only one market -- education.

Chromebook sales are rising, but Google still needs to promote them to the business crowd. Richard Nieva/CNET

Chromebook sales are on the rise, even though consumers still don't really have a good handle on them.

Global Chromebook sales are targeted to reach 7.3 million units in 2015, a 27 percent jump from the 5.7 million sold in 2014, research firm Gartner said on Thursday. But it's mainly schools followed by consumers pushing the numbers higher, and not businesses.

"Since the first model launched in mid-2011, Google's Chromebook has seen success mainly in the education segment across all regions," Gartner analyst Isabelle Durand said in a press release. "In 2014, the education sector purchased 72 percent of Chromebooks in EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa), 69 percent in Asia/Pacific and 60 percent in the U.S."

The consumer market will likely account for 40 percent of this year's sales in the US, 27 percent in the EMEA region and 15 percent in Asia/Pacific. But businesses will generate just 1.1 percent of Chromebook sales in the US, less than 1 percent in EMEA and 16.5 percent in Asia/Pacific.

An alternative to more expensive mainstream PCs, Chromebooks are lower-cost laptops designed primarily to access the Internet and run online applications. Powered by Google's Chrome OS, Chromebooks are sold by vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and Dell, and are targeted to buyers who don't need or want full-featured Windows notebooks. The education market has been snapping them up. The business crowd hasn't been so eager, though that may change over time. A possible reason for the discrepancy between schools and businesses? Many businesses are still ingrained with traditional Windows PCs outfitted with standard supported software, whereas schools can be more flexible as they don't have the same tight requirements.

Trying to win over businesses

While purchases of Chromebooks remain low among businesses, there has been some interest from small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs). Google itself has been trying to win over business users by making more apps and services available offline. The company has also introduced Chromebook for Work, which tries to target businesses with such features as single sign-on -- where you only need to enter your login credentials once to be valid for any app or service you need to access -- as well as better management of Chrome devices and richer graphics.

Google has also been trying to target Chromebooks to businesses by offering more flexible pricing options, such as an annual subscription of $50 per device per year that includes management and support of the devices.

"Chromebook is a device that can be considered by SMBs or new startup companies that do not have the resources to invest too much in IT infrastructure," Durand said. "Chromebooks will become a valid device choice for employees as enterprises seek to provide simple, secure, low-cost and easy-to-manage access to new web applications and legacy systems, unless a specific application forces a Windows decision."

Lack of consumer awareness

Many potential buyers remain unaware of what a Chromebook is and can do, according to Gartner. The challenge for Google is to increase audience understanding of a Chromebook, most notably outside the US. Another impediment, typically in emerging markets, is the lack of sufficient Internet connectivity that's needed to store and work with apps and files online.

"The majority of Chromebook users are tech-savvy individuals who purchase one as a companion device to their primary notebook or desktop PC," Durand said. "Others are buying a Chromebook for the household to use as a second low-cost PC alternative."

Among Chromebook sales worldwide, 84 percent were sold in North America last year, with the US being the largest market. Another 11 percent were sold in the EMEA region, and less than 3 percent were sold in Asia/Pacific, with most of the demand coming from Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer Acer became the world's top Chromebook seller in 2014 with more than 2 million units sold, followed by Samsung with 1.7 million and HP with 1 million.

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