2015 is year of the Chromebook

Chromebook Pixel keyboard

Last year, I disputed ridiculous assertions, based on widely misquoted NPD data, that 2014 would be "year of the Chromebook". It wasn't. But that designation does belong to 2015—at least in the United States. Measures: Number of new models; adoption by K-12 schools; and overall sales, which are surprisingly strong. Read carefully the next paragraph.

Through U.S. commercial channels and retail, Chromebooks accounted for 14 percent of laptop sales last year, according to NPD, which released data at my request. That's up from 8 percent in 2013. Commercial channels, largely to educational institutions, accounted for about two-thirds of 2014 Chromebook sold. Year over year, sales soared by 85 percent, and the trajectory continues to climb.

Soaring Sales

Apple apologists will scoff at the numbers, citing Macs' stronger margins because of higher selling prices. But greater cost is exactly the point, anchoring one of Chromebook's major benefits. You can get a laptop that meets most, if not all your needs, for a fraction of a new Mac while offering similar benefits.

My top recommended model right now is Toshiba Chromebook 2. Performance doesn't match Chrome OS models packing Intel Core "i" processors, but the overall benefits are superior when considering the bright, beautiful HD IPS screen. Chromebook 2 retail price is $329.99. For $1,299, you could buy the entry-level MacBook Pro with Retina Display, or for $20 more four of the Toshibas. Do the math, if a small business or school on a tight budget.

Having used both laptops, I attest that broad benefits are closer than you might think. The Chromebook category's shortcoming isn't cloud connected dependence but crappy TN screens. They're too dim and viewing angles suck. But not the Toshiba, which as measured in nits is brighter than MacBook Pro, which screen likewise diagonally measures 13.3 inches.

Other manufacturers focus on specific market benefits, like new Acer and Dell Chromebooks, which enclosures are toughened specifically for educational use. Apple's one-size-fits-all doesn't. Companies like Acer and Dell wisely differentiate, and they will continue sucking sales from one of the Mac's core markets. Recent, as in 2015, examples of K-12 Chromebook adoption:

Not that Apple seems to care. If you closely examine the marketing strategy under CEO Tim Cook's leadership, sales focus is increasingly the 1 percent of buyers—those people who can pay more. That's not a criticism. "Premium" is a word Apple clearly wants associated with its brand. Let the people who can pay more and want the bitten logo have it. The driver choosing a BMW sports car isn't the same as the  minivan buyer with a couple of kids—and they don't have to be, contrary to the prognostications of fanboys for whom reason is a lost cause.

Priming Pixel

Google sells the only premium-priced Chromebook, the Pixel, which is primed for imminent upgrade. That's the buzz based on OMG! Chrome!'s juicy find in a now redacted (e.g., made private) Google YouTube video. Two models are currently available, for $1,299 and $1,449.

Neither Pixel, old or new, is for the masses. Think developers and other creatives. In my February 2013 review, I asserted that:

If only Googlers, developers, and a handful of others buy Chromebook Pixel, it can be called a success. Because most people won’t spend that much money anyway. That’s the point I keep coming to in my evaluation. What Google presents is a great computer for people who are willing to spend 1,300 or 1,500 bucks—and who might otherwise choose an Apple.

As a full-time Chromebook Pixel user, my interest is longer battery life and WiFi AC. Performance and ergonomics of the existing models already are excellent. I would be shocked if the price comes down much, if at all. Wanna guess what developers will get at I/O this year—like they did in 2013?

Google's decision to update Pixel demonstrates great commitment to the category and spotlights how strong is Chromebook's sales momentum. Google's marketing tagline for the category is “For everyone”. Pixel is not, for the price. But without the laptop, there is no "For everyone", because Toshiba Chromebook 2 and other models in the price range or costing less can't satisfy many developers, creatives, or the 1 percent willing to spend Mac pricing but wanting the Chromie lifestyle.

As I look at the number of new Chromebook models coming to market, endless reports about K-12 schools buying the laptops, and the category's rising percentage of U.S. laptop sales, success is the descriptor. Acer and Samsung released the first commercially available Chromebooks in Spring 2011. Four years later, all major OEMs sell Chrome OS laptops, which, to repeat, have 14 percent U.S. commercial channel and retail sales share. Time is right to call 2015 what 2014 aspired to be: Year of the Chromebook.

Photo Credit: Joe Wilcox

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