Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 2017: The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

Chromebooks in 2018: Ready for take-off?

Chromebooks account for a small percentage of the PC market, but shipments are on the rise. Will the trend continue, or will Microsoft's Windows 10 S ecosystem halt the advance of Chrome OS?

Chromebooks running Google's Chrome OS have made inroads into the education market in particular -- thanks to their affordability and browser-based simplicity, and initiatives like Google for Education. However, Chromebooks remain a relatively rare sight in businesses. Will 2017 prove to be a watershed year for Chrome OS? A number of recent platform developments suggest it may be, but Microsoft has also woken up to the Chromebook challenge this year.

Unfortunately, assessing just how many Chromebooks have been sold is not made easy by the leading analyst firms. IDC includes Chromebooks in its quarterly PC market figures, but doesn't break out the numbers to allow comparisons between Chrome OS, Windows, and macOS systems (IDC numbers for 'traditional PCs' also exclude Windows tablets and detachable 2-in-1 devices). Gartner doesn't track Chromebooks at all in its PC market figures, but does include Windows tablets like Microsoft's Surface Pro.

Here are IDC's Chromebook-related statements from its recent quarterly PC market reports:

3Q 2017
"Despite the overall contraction, Chromebooks remain a source of optimism [in the US market] as the category gains momentum in sectors outside education, especially in retail and financial services."

2Q 2017
"The US posted just a slight decline but otherwise also pulled ahead of forecast in part due to Chromebook activity... Chromebooks remained a source of significant volume growth in the education-buying mid-quarters."

1Q 2017
"After a strong holiday season at the end of 2016, the [US] consumer PC market witnessed a comparative slow down this quarter with lower sell-out while the commercial PC market came out strong mostly backed by growth of Chromebooks."

Gartner has estimated the number of Chromebooks shipped worldwide in 2015 at 6.8 million, rising to 9.4 million in 2016 -- an impressive growth rate of 38.2 percent. IDC's figures for the total PC market (which include Chromebooks) in those years are 275.8 million and 260.1 million respectively, which means that the Chromebook share is small but rising -- from around 2.5 percent in 2015 to 3.6 percent in 2016. Gartner forecasts that Chromebook shipments will continue to grow, to 10.9 million in 2017 and 11.9 million in 2018.

Platform developments

Although the Chrome OS/Chromebook platform is doing well in the US education, retail, and financial markets, some recent developments could help it break out from these geographical and sectoral niches in future.

Play Store support

Back in May last year, Google announced that Android apps would become available on Chromebooks via the Google Play Store, greatly expanding the range of software available to Chrome OS users. Not every Chromebook will support the Play Store, however, because of differences in the hardware platform and other factors. Google maintains a list of Chrome OS devices that support, or are planned to support, Android apps. Here's the state of play at the time of writing (early December 2017):

play-store-status-2.png
Data: Google / Chart: ZDNet

There are 29 Chromebook vendors listed, offering a total of 93 devices: 57 have full Play Store support via Chrome OS's Stable Channel, two run the more regularly updated Beta Channel, while 34 have Android app support via the Play Store 'planned' for some time in the future.

According to AppBrain, there are currently just over 3.5 million Android apps in the Play Store, of which 13 percent are classified as 'low quality'. That leaves some three million 'regular' Android apps, although most will deliver a less than optimal experience on a Chromebook because they were originally written for the smartphone form factor: to rectify this, developers will need to adapt their apps for the Chromebook's larger screen and keyboard/touchpad input.

appbrain-google-play.png
Image: AppBrain

Office Mobile for Android

For many business users, the availability of Microsoft's Office apps is crucial when selecting a computing platform. So the recent news that Office Mobile for Android apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote) would be available for Chromebooks, initially in preview, was welcome. In a 30 November blog post, Microsoft said: "Earlier this week, we released a preview of the Office Mobile apps for Google Chromebooks. These apps were originally designed for Android phones, and they're not yet fully optimized for the Chromebook form factor. We've done some initial work on the end user experience and want to gather customer feedback. As with all of our mobile apps, an Office 365 subscription is required to edit documents on devices with a screen size of 10.1 inches or greater."

Alternatively, you can use Office Online, Microsoft's browser-based suite that's primarily aimed at home-users as an alternative to Google's Drive apps. Office Online provides free, cut-down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Outlook.

Chrome Enterprise

In August Google introduced an enterprise-focused version of Chrome OS in an effort to boost its business credentials. Key features in Chrome Enterprise, which costs $50 per device per year, include access to Managed Google Play via an approved EMM (Enterprise Mobility Manager), and integration with on-premises Active Directory infrastructure. Here's the full list of enterprise features compared to regular Chrome OS:

chrome-enterprise.png
Image: Google

Virtual apps and desktops

Another common enterprise requirement is access to key legacy Windows or line-of-business apps, which can be achieved via application or desktop virtualisation. Both of the leading app/desktop virtualisation specialists, Citrix, and VMware, allow Chromebooks to be used as thin clients.

Citrix, which announced a wider collaboration with Google in June, offers Citrix Receiver for Chrome on the Chromebook, linking to XenApp and XenDesktop at the back end over local or wide-area network connections. VMware's equivalent offerings are Horizon Client for Chrome OS and Horizon 7.

Android/Chrome OS convergence

The availability of Android apps on Chrome OS devices is one step towards the long-rumoured convergence of the two operating systems, to create a unified Google platform for smartphones, tablets and laptops. The project that was to bring this about, codenamed Andromeda, was reportedly cancelled earlier this year. Its replacement is a ground-up initiative codenamed Fuchsia, which was described as "an early stage experimental project" by Dave Burke, VP of engineering for Android, at Google I/O 2017 in May. We await further Fuchsia bulletins with interest.

Windows 10 S: Chromebook competition?

The rise of Chrome OS and Chromebooks did not go unnoticed by Microsoft, which delivered its response in May. The key feature of Windows 10 S is that it will only run Microsoft-verified Windows Store apps, including traditional desktop apps that have been converted via the Desktop Bridge toolset. Here are some more differences between the available versions of Windows 10:

windows-10-s.png
Image: Microsoft

Note that the Windows 10 S browser is set to Microsoft Edge and that this is not configurable, ruling out third-party browsers like Google's Chrome (among others). According to Microsoft, Windows 10 S is "ideal for people who have everything they need in the Microsoft Store and prefer the peace of mind that comes with removing the risk of downloading apps from other places."

Whether users will find 'everything they need' Microsoft's app store is the key point. Although it's not by any means all about the total numbers, the Windows Store lags well behind Apple and Google in this respect:

ms-store-apps-comparison.png
Image: Statista

Microsoft's May launch event also saw the first Windows 10 S device, the Surface Laptop -- which, starting at £979 (or $799 in the US), is priced well above most Chromebooks (although the £999/$999 Google Pixelbook is comparably pricey).

More affordable Windows 10 S laptops were announced in September, along with a tailored version of Microsoft 365, aimed at so-called 'Firstline Workers' -- "the people behind the counter, on the phone, in the clinics, on the shop floor, and in the field", as Microsoft put it. The new Windows 10 S devices for Microsoft 365 F1 are from HP, Acer, Lenovo and Fujitsu, and range from $275 to $349 -- very much in Chromebook territory.

The latest Windows 10 S development is its forthcoming availability on laptops powered by ARM processors from Qualcomm -- low-power SoCs with integrated LTE connectivity, more usually found on smartphones. These 'Always Connected' devices, initially from HP and Asus, will reportedly deliver around 20 hours of active use and 30 days on standby. The ARM version of Windows 10 S and certified Windows Store apps run natively, with traditional x86 apps supported via an emulation layer. It remains to be seen how well this will work. The NovaGo from Asus will ship before the end of 2017, priced between $599 and $799; HP has yet to reveal pricing for its Envy x2, which will ship in spring 2018.

Outlook for 2018

Although Chromebooks only account for a single-figure percentage of the total PC market, their numbers are on the rise, and Google's efforts to make the Chrome OS platform more business-friendly may begin to pay off in 2018.

The main obstacle to the Chromebook's progress is likely to be Microsoft and its developing Windows 10 S ecosystem: the hardware is similarly priced, and the software is more familiar to most users.

Perhaps it will come down to a battle between the app stores: will enough key Android apps be optimised for Chrome OS, and will the Windows Store offer enough choice for Windows 10 S users?


Chromebook reviews

Chrome OS platform

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