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

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Even if Google is committed to Chrome OS and the Chromebook project for the long term -- after all, this was a rare Google product launch that had live human beings, notably then-CEO and now-chairman Eric Schmidt, publlicly promoting it -- it's not clear why Samsung and Acer would continue to invest in what is essentially a distraction. There's much more opportunity for them in the Android tablet market and perhaps in the Ultrabook PC market. Maybe Google will pay them to stay involved; it likely would take such a subsidy for them to remain engaged beyond this year.

Mainelli suspects the Chromebook project got the go-ahead at Google when netbooks were all the rage around 2008 as a delivery vehicle for its cloud apps -- a cloud appliance, basically. For hardware makers, I suspect Google's pitch was the Chromebook as a cheaper form of netbook (no pricey Windows licenses or hard drives required), which would explain Samsung's and Acer's interest. But by the time the Chromebooks shipped in mid-2011, the netbook market was in a serious decline due to the iPad's 2010 debut and the increased supply of midlevel laptops for the same price as a Chromebook. And they all could run cloud apps.

Consumers can get more elsewhere for the same price
A big flaw in the Chromebook is its low value. Chromebooks cost about as much as an iPad, Android tablet, or midlevel PC: They range from $400 to $700, with most models above $500. All those devices can be used in browser mode à la Chome OS, and all support thin client access to back-end resources. But they work offline and provide access to many, many more apps than Chrome OS's Web world does.

It's true that Chromebooks don't require the kind of management and maintenance that a Windows PC or Mac does, but they also can't print (well, they sort of can in some circumstances, with a level of effort that approaches Linux PCs), play DVDs, connect to iTunes, or run common, compelling apps such as Quicken and Aperture. It's clear that users will deal with Windows 7 or Mac OS X to get those advantages, and that tablets -- particularly the iPad --- come much closer to that richer value proposition than a Chromebook does.

You can see this in what people actually do. I tend to fly Virgin America, which has a big kiosk in several airports providing a free loaner of a Chromebook with free Wi-Fi on the flight. I have yet to see anyone actually borrow and use them. I do see lots of iPads and laptops. Maybe I missed some Chromebook users on those flights, but the fact that they're invisible despite the free usage and free Wi-Fi tells me that users don't see the point. Then again, what would you do with a Chromebook on a plane other than check email, touch up work in Gogle Docs (if your documents are already loaded), and surf the Web? -- you can't stream video via an airplane's limited bandwidth connection, and music would be iffy too. Maybe you could connect to to download and read a book -- oops, there is no Kindle app for Chrome OS.

The business promise is hollow, too
Google strongly pushed the notion of Chromebooks being more than just café computers for casual users. It positioned the Chromebook as a reborn thin client, where IT wouldn't have to worry about hardware setup, Windows (or Mac or Linux) configuration, and all the pesky problems of users doing things locally. The zero-configuration, zero-management PC had arrived!

Yet Mainelli never hears businesses talking about deploying Chromebooks. By contrast, almost every business is deploying iPads, and many are using thin client apps like Citrix Receiver to provide the thin client access that has the same IT advantages that Google promised. Plus, they get offline usage not offered by the Chromebook.

The combination of the iPad (and increasingly Android laptops) with thin client apps seems to have satisfied both the users' needs and IT's needs. The Chromebook, by contrast, doesn't. There's the lack of ability to use it when offline, and although you might argue that a business's users would be in Wi-Fi range and not be subject to connectivity gaps, the Chromebooks are laptops that of course will leave the confines of the wireless LAN.

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