Over time, Chromebooks can take consumer love (and money) away from Windows, iPad

Google is using the business and education markets to generate some interest in Chromebooks among consumers.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive on

Here's a $499 question for consumers: If that's the amount of money in your budget for a new computing device, which route do you take when it comes time to buy?

Option 1: A cheap Windows notebook, using a platform and system that's already familiar to many consumer users. Remember that that familiarity includes the installation of anti-virus software and regular software updates. (I mention this because, in my own circle of friends and family, I have run across countless users who do not manage their software and OS updates  - at all.) And because it's a "cheap" Windows machine, you... well, get what you pay for.

Option 2: An iPad. With $499, you can have the coolest, hippest tablet device on the market today. It's not quite a notebook, of course, and if you're still big on a physical keyboard, you'll need accessories to go with this option.

Option 3: Google's new Chromebook, a Web-only approach that could present a steep learning curve for mainstream users who probably spend a lot of time on the Internet - Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo Mail - but also are very comfortable with on-device programs such as Microsoft Office or iTunes.

At the Google I/O developer's conference in San Francisco this morning, the company announced the upcoming release of Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung, which will become available on June 15. The company highlighted many of the benefits of Chromebooks, including automatic updates, one-click uploads to cloud storage services, all-day batteries and offline access to Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar.

But it was interesting, at the tail of the video highlighting the Chromebooks, that Google would note that "We're ready when you are." Clearly, Google is ahead of its time here - and gaining some traction in the consumer space won't be easy, given that many mainstream users are tied to the Windows and Mac ecosystems.

The Chromebook - being described by Google as a "new model of computing" - is using a strategic model to gain traction among consumers. For businesses and schools, Chromebooks are being offered under a subscription model for $28 and $20 per month, respectively. That includes hardware updates, full support and warranties and more.

Earlier today, Larry Dignan and I debated the Chromebook's potential traction in the marketplace and his take was that the model makes sense for schools and businesses, given that it also outsources the financially (and time) draining process of managing all of those machines on a network.

But for consumers? Dignan tells me there's no way that, as a consumer, he would drop $500 on something that's new and untested in the mainstream when he can grab an iPad or cheap Windows machine for the same money. His argument makes sense - but I don't think it holds water for long.

As I mentioned above, a high percentage of the Windows users in my life are not taking the proactive steps to protect their computers the way they should - and so many of them run into problems when they (or their kids) unknowingly install programs that come chuck full of malware. Likewise, a growing number of them are already living primarily on the cloud - popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, as well as storage, file-sharing and backup services like DropBox, SugarSync and others.

With that said, think back on what drove the rise of personal computers in the home. Users became familiar with computers by using them in the workplace and that usage eventually morphed into the home. Today, usage in the workplace is no longer the only driver of mainstream adoption of technology. Kids are a big market - and by tapping both businesses and schools with inexpensive, easy-to-manage models for Chromebooks, Google is positioning itself for adoption in the home, too.

In my own home, my kids have been using one of the early Chromebooks - the CR-48 - and have been writing book reports and research papers using Google Docs. They're familiar with Windows but not really big users. They don't need to be. Photos are shared on Facebook, videos are shared on YouTube and music... well, that's still tied to iTunes - for now.

My point is that, years from now, as teenagers become college students and then move into the workforce, the idea of both working and playing on the cloud is no big deal to them. Take away the need to install updates, transfer data between machines or struggle with the upgrade process and Google is giving them a no-brainer of a decision when it comes to their computing choices.

Personally, if I had $500 to blow on a new computing device today, the choice between Windows or an iPad is easy - the iPad wins for me. But throw Chromebook into the equation and suddenly the choice isn't so simple. As a consumer, I would have to pause and rethink my needs and the offerings of the iPad (or any tablet) vs. a Chromebook.

Just getting people to pause and weigh their options is half the battle. Google may not gain ground in the consumer market overnight, but the wheels are in motion for being a major disruptor in the not-so-distant future.

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