As 2013 closes, we are left with a bit of a puzzle in technology. The Chromebook, a browser-based, almost computer, designed by Google is definitely more popular than ever. But is it really catching on? And if so with who? Based on the breathless reporting at Cnet, they are taking over the corporate world: “Chromebooks surge at business in 2013, researcher says.” No, no, it’s not that, Mashable tells us. It’s education, where Apple is the victim: “Why Chromebooks Are Beating Macbooks.” One great thing about this mystery is that we have little clues, in the form of a data trail, thanks to StatCounter and Apple’s corporate filings. StatCounter keeps track of what devices and operating systems are using the internet and since Chromebooks use a platform, they’re easy to find. But the StatCounter data only tells us that Chromebooks got more popular in 2013, especially in December. The spike, though, came before Christmas.
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So what do we really know?
The Chromebook starts at just $199, with models from Acer and Samsung. An appealing model from HP that Google still oddly features on its website is $279, but was recalled due to faulty power adapters. Google also sells a much more expensive device, the Chromebook Pixel, for $1299, though it’s safe to assume that sales of that model are too low to measure. The Chromebook in many ways is like a tablet computer with a keyboard, though it’s very centered on Google’s Chrome web browser. Fortunately, thanks to Google Drive and the company’s Microsoft Office-like app suite, the Chromebook allows one to be quite productive. In addition, Google offers a guide on how to get things done on the Chromebook.
What you get for your money is not a computer in the traditional sense. But for the intended market, that’s mostly a plus. Instead of a device that requires lots of updating, is exposed to viruses and malware, etc. you get a fairly closed system that’s inexpensive, always up to date and, well, a bit disposable. As Rakesh Agrawal put it: “At $250, if I happen to forget it at a security checkpoint I’m not going to worry about it.”
But what don’t we know?
What’s less clear is who exactly is buying them and in what quantities. Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies and a deservedly respected analyst, believes they are going to education. ”There are no governments or IT departments running out to buy these products — they would be underwhelmed,” he told Mashable. “Instead, this growth is being driven by education.” But just how much growth are we talking about?
All this Chromebook excitement came from an NPD Report that touted Chromebooks as capturing a 22% share of notebook sales in the U.S. through November and 9.6% of all tablet and computer sales overall through what it calls the “commercial channel.” And that’s the first red flag that we’re looking at a subset of data. NPD believes Apple’s computer sales were off 7% so far this year. Through three quarters, however, the company globally is down by less than 5% on a unit basis. It’s possible (a) the U.S. is worse for Apple and (b) the numbers have eroded into the the holiday quarter but neither of these seem likely. Instead, it’s more that since NPD is using the data is has from resellers, and that data specifically excludes direct sales data from manufacturers like Apple, you wind up with a skewed picture. Just how skewed? Let’s look at tablets:
NPD says 14.4 million notebooks and tablets total were sold so far in 2013. Of those, it says 22% were tablets or about 3.2 million. Apple sold at least 60 million tablets in that period. Figure that at least 1/3 were sold domestically, because Apple revenue from the Americas has been 37-40% recently. NPD credited Apple with about a 60% share of the tablet market. In other words, it picked up about 2 million of the more than 20 million iPads Apple sold thus far in 2013. So when NPD says something about what’s selling, it’s important to realize it sees the world through a very narrow window. The same is true when we read that Chromebooks are the best selling laptops on Amazon.
Still, something is happening
None of this is meant to suggest that the Chromebook isn’t gaining traction. That StatCounter data paints a fascinating picture. You can’t see anything from the graphs, but if you download the data, here’s what you learn: Globally, Chromebooks gained almost no presence through November. There was some growth through the year, from 0.01% of total traffic to 0.04%, but over 11 months it was merely slow and steady. Then, in December a spike occurred starting around the 10th and left the ChromeOS with a 0.1% share as of this writing. So that’s 10 times where it started the year and 2.5x where it started the month. Definitely more than nothing and more than just statistical noise, it seems. What appears equally true, is that virtually all the adoption is coming from within the U.S., where ChromeOS is now at 0.34% of traffic.
The part that gets challenging is attributing much of this — if any — to education. A spike one third of the way through December does not match up with a K-12 phenomena. Nor does it mesh well with Christmas giving. The new Acer did arrive in October and the more-expensive touchscreen version came in November, so there is the new product factor to consider. That seems more important than Google’s own excitement over Chromebooks being in schools.
And when tired canards are trotted out, it becomes questionable just how much those schools are using the Chromebooks. “”Education is still very keyboard-centric,” Bajarin said. “It’s driven by the concept that you want students to create and not just consume. The iPad is great for consumption and areas where touch can be integrated, but when it comes to writing papers or making comments, there are challenges.”
Haven’t we buried the myth about iPads being consumption-only devices? And even if you ignore apps like Skitch, Paper, Quip and countless others, the idea that young kids — who type hundreds of words a day onto their smartphones just for texting – need physical keyboards is ridiculous.
NPD’s numbers would have us believe Chromebook’s were nearly 50 times more popular (9.6% of the market vs. 0.2%) in a segment that grew 25% from last year. That’s rather remarkable as it would suggest sales increased perhaps sixtyfold. The StatCounter data puts this on the cusp of plausibility. Still, it will be interesting to follow Chromebook usage in the coming months to see how it changes from here. Do the new Chromebooks remain popular with their users or don’t they? Does the retail sales data continue to suggest sales are surging? Perhaps we’ll be able to solve 2013′s final mystery in 2014. Until then, Happy New Year everyone.