Google’s Chromebook platform has spawned it most interesting digressions for a while with the announcement of two new devices from Asus, one a touchscreen laptop with a swivelling touchscreen and the other that runs Chrome OS inside something that looks like a USB stick.
Most attention will be focused on the Chromebook Flip, an aluminium-clad machine that apes some of the ideas already tried out without much success on the Windows platform in the expensive Transformer Book Flip.
Those were pitched as more powerful devices that allowed the screen to be turned into a tablet whereas the Chromebook Flip is a basically a Chromebook with a smaller screen that can be swivelled back on the keyboard.
Apart from the smaller screen, the innovation in the new machine is that it uses the ARM-based 1.8Ghz Rockchip 3288 SoC, which means Asus can offer 4GB of RAM and a better IPS screen at a relatively low cost of $249 (assume £229).
Designed as a hybrid laptop-handheld, the small fly in the ointment is that the Chromebook doesn’t offer scintillating touchscreen support. This is due to be addressed in the coming months with the promised Chrome OS 42 update that will add better usability and more support for developers porting Android apps.
More intriguing in a way is the $99 Chromebit, which gets the same Rockchip SoC plus 2GB of RAM and 16GB of eMMC flash storage into something that has the appearance of an over-sized USB stick. On the outside are a single micro-USB port for power, an HDMI port for connection to a monitor or TV, and one USB 2.0 port for hitching up a keyboard or mouse. Alternatively, Bluetooth is available as in on-board Wi-Fi.
This kind of device is reminiscent of Intel’s Compute Stick, a device that roughly parallels it in price and power. As with other the Chromebox desktop system, the real question is who and what it’s for. One answer is education, a sector the Chrome platform has stormed in the US, the other are businesses looking for a secure alternative to Windows laptops.
Microsoft already has the Windows-To-Go platform but that's exclusively a corporate convenience product that recognises that not every organisation wants to give workers a laptop into their hands. As far as anyone can tell, its uptake has been modest although there has been the odd success story from the UK.
The key to continued Chrome OS expansion will be price and marketing. The issue of price is being solved by cheaper devices but the issue of marketing remains more uncertain.
Chromebooks are still not sold in many countries and are often delayed in distribution when they are. Outside the US, they receive no promotion to speak of. It is telling that once again the announcement of the Asus Chromebook Flip and Chromebit were previewed to US tech titles but nobody else.
Anecdotally, sales in the UK have been mediocre – “It’s an American computer,” one sales person was overheard telling a bemused customer in a brand UK computer store some weeks ago. In PC World UK most Chromebooks are easily £20-£50 more expensive than Windows for Bing systems from the likes of HP.
This is what happens when Google leaves marketing up to Asian firms that have a poor record of doing that but this is how Google likes to work.