Chromebooks: Stuck between a rock and a cheap place

Laptops running Google's Chrome OS are coming from all the major players, and most are much the same. That's because the very thing that makes them appealing prevents one from breaking out.

Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

We’re seeing new Chromebooks announced at a steady pace, as major laptop makers are racing to get them to market. The inexpensive laptops running Google’s light Chrome OS are appealing to consumers and educators, and even the enterprise is considering the low-cost laptops.

Chrome OS is a lightweight platform which is one of its major strengths. It runs well on hardware that is not the most powerful, and that may end up impacting its success over time.

The typical cycle for laptops and other mobile devices involves refreshing the hardware with each generation. First, relatively low power processors will be used, and each iteration gets better and better. This keeps the product lines appealing to buyers over a few years.

It's not clear how the Chromebook will play out over an extended period. They all have lesser hardware because it keeps the prices low, plus it's all they need for Chrome OS. That's why most Chromebooks being sold are much the same, and OEMs are having trouble making their models stand out from the crowd.

The problem will get even worse over time, as Chromebook makers can't bump up the hardware without risking raising the prices. That would push them out of the market over time as buyers are attracted to the Chromebook largely due to low pricing. The standard refresh method for laptops is not viable for Chromebooks.

If this scenario sounds familiar it’s because we saw it with netbooks. Those low-cost Windows laptops used cheap hardware to debut pricing never seen before. They were under-powered, but buyers picked them up in droves given how cheap they were. That wasn’t enough to keep them around for very long, and the Chromebook may see the same fate over time. On the plus side Chrome OS is easier on the hardware than Windows on the netbook, so perhaps the Chromebook will escape the same fate as the netbook.

Chromebook makers will be faced with making other changes with each product iteration, instead of internal hardware improvements. Perhaps they'll have to keep improving the design to keep the products moving off the shelves. The internals won't need improving much and they'll have to do something with each new generation of the product line. It’s not clear what improvements will keep the lowly Chromebook from the same fate as the netbook.

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