The Chromebook isn't selling, so what?

Apparently, people aren't buying Chromebooks. Or they're buying them, but not using them. But does that actually matter?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
Artist's impression of what Chromebook sales might look like.
Artist's impression of what Chromebook sales might look like.

My ZDNet colleague Ed Bott broke the story last night that despite the fact that people seem to love the Chromebook, no one seems to be using them.

Despite the fact the Chromebook was introduced in June 2011, and thus, has much more market exposure than Windows RT, in the real world, Chromebooks and Windows RT devices appear to have the same usage according to an analysis of website statistics. Specifically, around 0.023 percent.

Which isn't very much.

If you were in my office now, you may notice a shelf. On it sits a Chromebook. To its right, a Surface RT. Neither of them I've used in either weeks or months — I honestly can't remember.


My reaction last night was to jump on Twitter and start justifying the low sales of Chromebook — ie, I badly wanted to be a "Chromebook apologist".

Being an apologist is always a good sign that you like something. And I do really, really like the Chromebook. So why's mine sitting on a shelf doing nothing waiting for me to get around to chucking it on eBay.

Because I can't do very much with it compared to the other tools I have at my disposal. Well, other "tool" singular — my Mac is more useful. (And this doesn't have to be a Mac, it can be a PC. I happen to use a Mac. "Go, me.")

For example, today, I have to write this piece, then do a bunch of ASP.NET development, then a bunch of book editing, then some other bits, and spend some time on Twitter. I can use the Chromebook to do some of that, but not all. There's no point physically switching the Mac and Chromebook around just to be task specific — I might as well use my Mac.

When it comes to Windows RT and Chromebook, they are two peas in a pod. They are so similar in so many ways it's actually a bit spooky.

First similarity is that I don't use either of them day-to-day because they don't have enough utility to cover the specialised work that I do day-to-day.

Second similarity is that what they're both good at and bad at is roughly the same. I can't use either of them for specialised development work. I could use Surface RT for doing the book editing as it's rather good for doing heavy work in Office, and the Chromebook is abundantly not. (Although for light work, Google Docs is ace.)

Third similarity is that they're both bold experiments in how to reframe the PC away from being a device focused on corporate efficiency and one that's more about fitting into lifestyle of normal people outside of their lives at work.

Wait, though — there's another way to look at that first similarity of applicability for day-to-day use which is the "what's it for?" test.

Actually ...?

This is classic technology adoption curve stuff. Early adopters (usually technologists) look at something new and find a way to use the tool for their own purposes, and voila, they like it. And then that group and the vendor's marketing department has to explain it to normal people who promptly turn round and say "Uh?"

In both the case of the Chromebook and Windows RT, the same point has to be explained: "No, you can't run your normal software on it."

And then you have this conversation: "So shouldn't I just buy a normal PC?"


And a normal PC gets bought. Which is fine. Or a normal PC doesn't get bought because the potential customer that we're talking about already has one and that happens to be working OK. Which is also fine if you consider the big picture that puts the customer and the environment first, but not fine if you're an OEM or Microsoft.

(Personally, I don't care about the OEMs or system vendors. I'm all about the customer and environment on this one. If you've got a decade old XP machine that does you fine, great. Don't waste resources demanding a new one — just check you've got your backups working well.)

One of the big advantages that Google has with the Chromebook compared to Microsoft with Windows RT, and also Windows generally, is that Google probably doesn't care that much if Chromebooks sell because their business is currently mostly agnostic with regards to the device on which their services are consumed.

Microsoft is in a much weaker position in this regard because much, as management wants to pivot their business to be devices and services based, as opposed to utterly dependent on Windows and Office sales, which hasn't happened yet.

Google is facing the enemy here — Microsoft is still trying to work out who's shooting at it.

The fact that sales and/or real world usage of both of these experiments is so low tells you that the experiments have failed. Or is failing. Either way.

But failing experiments are fine. Which, peculiarly, is something that all engineers fundamentally understand, so why engineers would complain about failures is beyond me. Perhaps it's not them complaining vociferously.

"Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp," said Thomas Edison. Well, probably. You know what the internet is like. Sounds valid enough, though.

The important thing to remember here is that the customer is well served by these experiments. Much as I love the PC as a general purpose compute device that adapts beautifully to specific, commercial problem domains, it's a boneheaded lump of a thing, chock full of malware and abuse vectors that is fundamentally unsuited to a general population of non-technologists looking to use compute devices to augment their lives.

The sooner the PC dies, frankly, the better.

So does it matter that the Chromebook isn't selling? Or that Windows RT isn't selling? As I mentioned earlier — they're basically the same principle, just done differently.

No. I don't think it does. The important thing is that smart engineers are out there trying to build great devices and services that serve a general population of normal human beings better than the old-school PC.

Whether Google, Apple, or Microsoft do that — who cares, really? At least having 0.023 percent market share drives the story on.

Sitting back and doing nothing does nothing for anyone.

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