PC sales are in steady global decline and yet it is Google’s modest newcomer, the Chromebook, that seems to get a kicking on a regular basis simply for daring to exist. The latest example is by commentator Ed Bott, who ridicules Google’s upstart for selling so poorly in Q3 of 2013 it could barely match the sales of Microsoft’s Windows RT-based Surface.
Based on IDC’s numbers quoted by Bott, Samsung shipped under 700,000 units in that quarter, its rivals Acer and HP maybe half that volume, which we could round out to a million units for an annual PC market share of a few percent at best. Meanwhile, the supposedly failing PC sold around 80 million units.
But look behind the numbers and the picture becomes more complex in ways I’d suggest is leading experienced heads to miss the point on a pretty historic scale.
Although Chromebooks have officially been on sale for two years (launching commercially in June 2011), for more than a year all that was available were low volumes of the relatively pricey version 1.0 machines of interest to hardcore techies and developers. The real consumer launch came much later in October 2012 with the Google/Samsung Series 3 that has along with the Acer C7, launched at the same time, dominated Amazon’s laptop sales ever since.
So IDC’s Samsung Q3 sales figures are more fairly a view of the platform’s popularity after one year, not two. Interestingly, nobody criticises Apple for achieving laptop sales numbers only a notches above Chromebooks after several decades so Google’s computer isn’t doing that badly.
Another important caveat; you can’t buy Chromebooks in every country. It’s not easy to find out which countries have and have not been selling Chromebooks but the Samsung Series 3 only went on sale in developed markets such as Canada - to pick only one example - in March 2013, months after the US launch. My understanding is that Chromebooks have not been sold for more than a few months in a number of markets and a few others might not even be selling them even now.
By contrast, IDC’s sales measure sales of PCs, a platform that has dominated for three decades and is available in every corner of the globe. Conclusion: direct comparisons between Windows PC sales and the Chromebook are harder to make than it first appears.
Before I start sounding like a Chrombeook fundamentalist, after using one for some time I’m pretty happy to point out their weaknesses. Printing from them is a pain as is the clunky integration with documents edited to or from Microsoft Office (it is possible to use Outlook.com for that but that’s true of any computer). Chromebooks use basic web apps built for browsers and so far the choice of those has been pretty limited.
Perhaps worst of all, PC vendors decided early on that Chromebooks were going to be a reinvention of the $300 netbook idea and so (with the exception of Google’s entirely experimental Pixel), the models on sale today are cheap laptops with small screens. This is changing rapidly; forward plans from a number of big PC vendors suggest that larger screens and more powerful processors will be the norm a year from now, far closer to the low-end PCs they are really aiming to compete with.
It is too early to judge the Chromebook on its sales story alone. It is not sold as widely as the PC, it is very early in its sales cycle and manufacturers are only now starting to offer hardware that makes good use of it. It is improving rapidly and from a low base its sales are rising. Could it one day grab 10 percent of the PC market? If it continues to improve and avoids an open conflict with Google’s other platform, Android, very possibly.
The arrival of Chromebooks doesn’t tell us that the PC is about to collapse or that this will be its replacement. This late in the game, the PC will be with us for some time not least for the cagey business market invested in legacy software. But look at longer-term trends and it’s also true that today’s consumers - especially the younger ones - are getting used to working with a range of different platforms that integrate with one another fairly seamlessly through cloud services. The idea that one firm's computers, software or ideas can serve everyone's needs is increasingly seen as an aberration.
The Chromebook is just another device that delivers the message that diversity is be the new norm and that the days of Microsoft’s Windows as the automatic personal computing platform for consumers are over. Desktop Linux tried for years to take on the Windows PC with only the moral success of becoming the techie's favourite to show for its efforts. There are signs that Google’s apparently unloved Chrome computer, which sprang from the same sense of frustration at the PC’s deep flaws, is already well ahead of this mark.