The only meaningful advantage Chromebooks have over Windows laptops is price

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.

StatCounter-os-ww-monthly-201406-201406-bar
Chrome OS share is too small to have its own row: in “Other”

Sales performance

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.

Simplicity

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.

Low Maintenance

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.

Fast Start-Up

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.

8 thoughts on “The only meaningful advantage Chromebooks have over Windows laptops is price

  1. I would say one big advantage over Windows just coming out in the news is the compatibility with Android apps. Mobile apps tend to be well developed and optimized than web version of theirs. The vast and rich applications in Android eco will open many ways to do with a Chromebook.
    The another thing is this unification simplifies your device eco. Something as in Mac OSX + iPhone + iPad tag team.

    You can create a virtual machine for Android OS running inside a cheap Windows laptop, but that’s going to be laggy.

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    1. If you have an Android phone, why would you prefer to access an app on a Chromebook? The only thing I can think of is maybe playing a game on a bigger screen, but then I’m not sure how the controls would work. I can be wrong, but I would be surprised if this moves the needle for Chromebooks. Even if it does turn out to be meaningful, wouldn’t you just rather get an Android tablet? It costs about the same and the tablet can do so much more.

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      1. Firstly, the reason I want Android apps is defragmented experience. There is a lot of competition in mobile apps to be the best for one task. And, this is not limited to phones but also tablets. And, laptops are just tablets with a keyboard. Good design apps are ready there. Mostly, these mobile apps have web version too, but they are not prioritized as much as in mobile. Besides, there are also fragmentation in browsers too. So, having this is a plus to Internet working experience.

        Secondly, my guess is Windows device makers have to pay licenses to Microsoft. This reduces money to be put on hardware. Chromebook sacrifices this for a SSD. Although it is only 16GB small, but it should be enough to hold data needed to be worked at hand. This makes it more durable and has longer time. It can also optimizes this money for other hardware too if Chromebook makers do not choose SSD e.g. RAM or CPU.

        Thirdly, screen size affects the way of using. You use a phone and a tablet or a laptop differently. I don’t think it is fair to compare accessing an App in phone and in laptop. For tablets, you have the point. Android tablets are powerful and it has an access to Chrome apps now. So what is the different. Again, the screen size for Chromebooks is bigger than average 7″ tablets (there are few serving larger than that). Some tasks are better on a larger screen, such as, editing documents or viewing videos i.e. desktop tasks. You can have the same screen size as Chromebooks for tablets but you have to spend much more on it. This is the price and task advantage of chromebooks.

        So you can have a cheap, solid and capable to get your job done laptop. Price per usefulness is the key here.

        I think the only thing that makes you have to stick to Windows is those automation and engineering software. There are few companies making them and they target mostly only Windows. For other things, you can do everything on the Internet already, but you have to ask for changes inside an organization.

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      1. I think mobile apps excluding games and drawing can be used without having touch capability. What you do on these apps are mostly clicking (tapping) a screen and typing. This is especially true for productivity apps.
        Apps allow you to interact with touching, but you don’t have to.

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  2. fulcronz, thank you for a great comment and thoughtful response! I’d have to wait for the actual implementation to see how it works, but I struggle to think how apps like feecha, Tinder and others that rely heavily on touch gestures will work out of the box with a keyboard and mouse. Could be good, could be bad. Probably bad.

    Your other points address how important price is in this equation. Android apps aren’t a draw if you already have an Android phone. Yet apps that benefit from a larger screen (like spreadsheets) are already better on Windows; so if that’s what you need, a Windows laptop is more attractive assuming price is the same.

    So to me it really comes down to price, because while Chromebooks are good enough for most people I’m not sure it’ll ever be better than a Windows laptop.

    P.S. Games can be the X-factor here; tablet games on Android might be ahead of tablet games on Windows.

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  3. I have one thought about the pricing is that.
    At dirt cheap price, Chromebooks are sure shot to me. But, is $100-200 gap huge for a customer to buy one Windows laptop? A laptop usually lives with you for 2+ years, and you want it to survive with you (at least for me is graduation). They may not mind about the price gap and choose for a thing that is useful for them in its lifecycle.

    I also want to see how they are going to come out.

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