Thinking of a Chromebook for Christmas? Wait until 2016

Google's foray into a cloud computer is stillborn, with paltry sales and still no offline version of Google Docs

Launched with fanfare last spring as the ultimate simple computer for both individuals and enterprises, the Google Chrome OS-powered Chromebooks got tepid reviews that boiled down to "great idea, but I need something that works when I'm offline, too." Still, the notion of a laptop that has no operating system to manage and puts email, social networking, photo sharing, Web surfing, news reading, and Angry Birds all in a browser may appeal to those looking for a Christmas gift for the grandparents, the kids, or that technologically disinterested friend or relative. The idea of simpler computing has strong emotional appeal.

Sorry to say, don't do it. Even if you buy into the Chromebook's premise, the execution doesn't really support it -- whether for a casual user or a business seeking to get out of Windows management. Maybe that'll change by 2016, if wireless broadband is truly ubiquitous and affordable, if Chrome OS and Google Docs finally support offline usage, and if somehow Windows 8 and the iPad haven't become the standard computing platforms of the day.

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No buyers, no momentum
First, there's strong evidence that the Chromebook is a major flop:

  • Despite the support of Samsung and Acer, it appears Chromebook sales have been minuscule. Neither IDC nor Gartner tracks Chomebooks sales data per se, because of its lack of market presence, but IDC analyst Tom Mainelli, who tracks the tablet and netbook space, estimates that at most 300,000 units have shipped to retailers, with an unknown percentage in customers' hands. He compares that to the estimated 31 million netbooks and 210 million laptops shipped this year.
  • Mainelli also notes that when IDC asked Samsung last week about its Chromebook sales and plans, the company quietly changed topics.
  • Google itself has not delivered a version of Google Docs that would work offline -- which it had promised to do last year while the Chromebook was still in beta. Mainelli says a Chromebook "can't pass go" if it can't be used offline. I believe if Google were really serious about the Chromebook, this would have been a huge priority. Its continued absence suggests that the Chromebook is yet another Google project thrown up against the wall and then left to fade away.
  • The Chrome Web Store's selection of apps for Chrome OS remains a paltry collection of mainly widgets and simplistic apps. There are many more titles of value in the Apple iOS App Store and the Google Android Market.

All of these play into each other to sustain the lack of momentum: Poor sales means app developers won't invest; lack of apps means users won't buy unless they really want just a portable browser -- in which case a tablet or PC at the same price beckons as a safer decision.

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