The narrative is that Chromebooks are disrupting Windows PCs. Forbes: “Here’s why Microsoft is worried about Google Chromebooks.” The Verge: “The Chromebook is just a better device.” WSJ: “Google’s winning over some businesses.” The Street: “Why Google’s Chromebook is better than Windows, Mac and Android.”
Let’s run with the assumption that Chromebooks are doing well and compete with laptop PCs. Advocates claim non-tech savvy consumers choose Chromebooks for generally three reasons: 1) simplicity, 2) low maintenance and 3) easy usage in its fast start-up times. I disagree. People with low computing needs don’t buy Chromebooks because they are a better experience; they buy them because of PRICE.
Let’s examine whether Chromebooks are even selling well in the first place. Advocates like to point to Amazon charts as proof. As of this writing, a $250 Dell is #1 along with 15 others with Windows 8.1 in the top 20. Four of the top 20 are Chromebooks. The problem with Amazon is it doesn’t represent mass America, who still prefers to purchase expensive electronic items in a store where they can speak to customer representatives.
If you look at actual usage, it’s stark. According to StatCounter, Chromebook web usage was just 0.17% in June 2014. For an always-online device supposedly destroying PCs, that’s an incredibly niche number. By comparison, Windows RT — widely declared as dead on arrival — registered 0.11% over the same time period.
Why do people think Chrome is simple? Have you seen its settings page? Show it to a “normal” and see his eyeballs roll.
The fact is Chrome’s settings page exceeds the comfort threshold for the non-tech savvy just as much as Windows’. If you don’t know it’s there and never need to go there, it’s not a problem. This might have been an issue for older versions of Windows, where connecting a printer may require going to settings, but it hasn’t for the last several generations of Windows.
Compare the desktop for Chromebook vs. Windows RT. Even the amount of visual complexity is the same. I reject the notion that Chromebooks are simpler than Windows laptops for the non-tech savvy.
Don’t get me wrong: Chromebooks are simpler for those who know what’s there; but that’s because Chromebooks do less. For the uninitiated, that complexity is hidden. Users don’t care what processes are running in the background as long as their direct experience is good.
That too was an issue with older versions of Windows, especially during the netbook craze, but Microsoft has worked hard to make Windows experience great even on cheap hardware.
Pundits often compare their current Chromebook experience with an old Windows machine; but the $250 Dell computer that’s #1 on Amazon will run as smoothly as the $250 Chromebook.
One of the wonderful things about Chromebooks is that because it’s a thin client of sorts you never have to worry about viruses. But you know what? Neither do modern Windows devices.
Yes, that wasn’t always true. Blame that on the government, which handcuffed Microsoft’s ability to add native security features to Windows because it was seen as anti-competitive to the likes of Norton and McAfee. I’m not kidding. When I worked at Microsoft, I was constantly told not to plan on improving security because legal and compliance would object. So when consumers purchase a new laptop and don’t renew their $30 per month anti-virus package after the initial trial period – as most are wont to do – they get into trouble. And Microsoft gets the blame.
But in today’s post PC world, Microsoft is no longer seen as a monopoly and can finally begin to fix some of the problems that have crippled Windows in the past. Like building anti-virus and firewall right into Windows 8. For the vast majority of users buying new PCs today, they’re taken care of right out of the box. This doesn’t completely eliminate the threat of bad programs but it does reduce it considerably.
The Chromebook advantage here is small; and I argue, not meaningful.
Chromebooks wake from sleep nearly instantly. Modern PC laptops take 1-3 seconds. I personally agree this is a major advantage for Chromebooks. Windows 8 has improved wake-up time a lot, but it still sucks – even on Microsoft’s own Surface devices.
But that’s me. A gadget junkie that is constantly reaching for his electronics. What about this non-tech savvy person with low computing needs? How much does a couple of seconds really matter when he’s only occasionally using the device? Sure, people are online all the time — but they’re online with their mobile phones, not laptops.
No, Chromebooks sell because of one reason only: PRICE. It’s not better; it’s just good enough. And when it’s good enough the most important variable is how much it costs. That’s the main reason people purchased Chromebooks.
That’s also why I predict Microsoft’s efforts to drive down the cost of Windows for OEMs will be effective. Between two products that cost the same, consumers will simply choose the one that does more.
The only thing holding Microsoft back is misperception and a bad reputation. Some deserved, some unfairly perpetuated.