Can Chromebooks Make a Comeback?

A Techwise Conversation With Analyst Ben Bajarin

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for

IEEE Spectrum

’s “Techwise Conversations.”

It’s been two months since Samsung and Acer, in collaboration with Google, started selling the Chromebook. For about a third of the price of a MacBook Air, you get a similarly sleek computer. The downside? It runs essentially one application—Google’s Chrome browser. In exchange, though, you’re as free as a bird to roam among the clouds.

All you need is a good Wi-Fi connection. That’s because instead of using desktop programs like Word, iTunes, and Photoshop, you’d be using cloud-based software like Google Docs, Pandora, and MugTug Darkroom—a browser-based application for editing photos. As a Google employee wrote in the company’s official blog: “Your apps, games, photos, music, movies, and documents will be accessible wherever you are and you won’t need to worry about losing your computer or forgetting to back up your files.” Apparently, though, laptop users weren’t worried enough. Excitement for the Chromebook, never very visible, has all but disappeared.

My guest today, Ben Bajarin, thinks the guys at Google are actually onto something with the Chromebook despite being unable to sell very many of them. Ben is an analyst and the director of the consumer technology practice at Creative Strategies in Campbell, California, near San Francisco. He joins us by phone. Ben, welcome to the podcast.

Ben Bajarin: Hey. Thanks for having me.

Steven Cherry: So how is the Chromebook doing? Is it selling and who’s buying?

Ben Bajarin: Well, currently it’s not selling—you know, lackluster numbers. The one thing that’s relatively interesting is that finding this in retail is obviously hard; they haven’t shipped to retailers yet, so it’s mostly online. But I track Amazon’s bestsellers in laptop computers, and there was actually a brief time when the Acer Chromebook was in the top five. It’s now moved down to the 18th position but still in the top 20 of sellers, which if we’re looking at who’s buying these things and if they’re buying online again, not in huge quantities. But it’s going to lend itself to be more of an early adopter crowd, somebody with more disposable income that can afford a purchase just to figure out what a technology is and what it means to those folks on the bleeding edge. And it makes sense, I think, that’s really who I think this was targeted to. But I’m not sure that the vendors at this point had expected to sell a tremendous amount of these machines; it was more about we need to get a product out in the market that validates a concept—in this case, Chrome OS.

Steven Cherry: So one category of people that fits that profile, sort of early adopters and willing to experiment, is college students. And there’s this limitation that you need good Wi-Fi, but college campuses have plenty of that. So are students buying them?

Ben Bajarin: No, we’re not seeing a lot of traction within students; I think it’s mostly still at this point the über—what we’ll call geeks, if you will. You know, one of the challenges right now with this product category is price. You can get a fully fledged PC notebook at this point with Windows, right? A full operating system, not a browser-based operating system that Chrome is, for around the same price as these Chromebooks. And I think if you’re a student it’s a little risky to say, hey, this is the only machine I can move to, especially when you’re not really familiar with what this product is, what it could be, what it could mean to you in your life, whereas you’ll just play the safe bet with getting a computer. And to be honest, we’re seeing a lot of or we’re hearing a lot of channel shipments of MacBook Airs for back to school, which would tend to say students are still heavily favoring either a MacBook Air or an entry-level PC notebook, Windows-based notebook, at a competitive price.

Steven Cherry: So there’s sort of a lull right now as manufactures work on the next generation of Chromebooks. Rumor has it that Google is going to ditch the Intel Atom chip, which is a low-power processor made especially for portable devices. Do you think that’s right, and what other changes might we see?

Ben Bajarin: Well, I definitely think that you’ll see vendors include more than just Intel. I don’t think that Intel will be out entirely of the Chromebook space. I think there will certainly be products shipped on Intel processors. But if you look at the capabilities of this device and then you look at what’s happening within the ARM community, which is really what I think this next generation will have—either processors from Nvidia, Qualcomm, or TI, who have some of the leading-edge processors out there in multicore based on ARM, where Intel’s based on x86. And we’re seeing a lot moved to that, mostly because ARM is a bit cheaper of a processor; it’s also much more lower power than Intel’s at this point, even though Intel’s continued new-generation silicones are getting lower power. ARM does have a power advantage at this point. And then it’s relatively similar in performance to the Atom chips that are in Chromebooks at this point. So we’re going to see that shift happen. I certainly think we’re going to see a good deal of Chromebooks on the market.

Steven Cherry: So stepping back for a second, this isn’t the first time for this kind of computer, not by a long shot. Back in the 1990s we had something called network computing on so-called thin clients, which were essentially a keyboard and a screen and enough processing power to communicate with remote servers. Oracle and Sun and IBM were all over it. Does cloud computing mean that the time has finally come for thin clients?

Ben Bajarin: I think it’s closer. I think it’d be hard to say, yes, it’s arrived in full force. I think we’re seeing some of those real fundamental challenges that faced the early concepts of a network computer start to be overcome. You know, we can see a world where pervasive connectivity with true broadband can happen; it’s not now, but the network operator path evolution is moving in that direction. We can see very, very interesting HTML 5 apps that function very similar to a fully functioning native piece of software all happening within the browser. So we’re seeing some of the writing on the wall that that future could be rapidly approaching. And one of the things that I’ve always thought was very interesting about this network-based computer concept, or what we also like to refer to as browser-based computing—meaning computing that takes place solely within the browser—is that it’s a pretty attractive value proposition for the software community, who only really if that future happens needs to write a piece of software that takes place on the Web. They don’t have to deal with operating systems, the fragmentation thing—I’ll write for Windows, I’ll write for Android, I’ll write for webOS, I’ll write for Apple, etc. They could actually just write one piece of software that takes place in the browser and it’ll work across all these different machines. So the cross-platform value proposition to software residing on the Web I think is a pretty significant one that becomes interesting, because software’s such a key part of our experiences with devices. It’s one of those fundamental experiences—we need to have great software to take advantage of the great hardware that we make.

Steven Cherry: So I guess this is going to take years and years. We’re going to need more hardware, like the Chromebook, to spur the software developers. We need more applications out there working in the cloud for people to be attracted to something like the Chromebook.

Ben Bajarin: Right, and I think it starts again just by having products in the market so that the software development community, so that consumers, they can get experience and exposure to these products. It’s all part of the consumer adoption cycle. So that’s why I think these first devices, although they may not sell a lot, they’re good for the experience. We’ll see them evolve. This is going to take some time; I mean, we have to have reliable broadband to all of these devices as a fundamental piece, if an Internet connection is going to be required for me to use this PC. I mean, there are elements of HTML, and future versions of that will do better local caching, but the bottom line is, I want this device to be pervasively connected to the Internet at all times if it’s truly going to be a “network computer.” So there’s those types of things to come over. But the biggest one is getting the software community to embrace this concept of Web applications and look at where HTML 5 is, look at where future versions of HTML go—HTML 6, HTML 7, etc. That language will evolve, as will JavaScript, to be able to take advantage of some very, very interesting elements of the hardware. In fact it was also interesting, too, that last week Google publicly announced a beta that they had called NACL, which basically allows the Chrome browser through this extension NACL to actually render C and C++ programming languages within the browser. And those two languages are two of the most fundamental to writing native software applications today. So by saying the browser will support C and C++, they’re catering to languages that are already written for native and making them usable for programming on the Web. I think things like that are showing Google’s vision that we are going to move toward this network-connected reality where all of your applications and your software feel very much like native software, like ones that you’ve installed and ran but are happening inside the browser.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, thanks a lot. You’ve really cleared up a lot about the Chromebook for us.

Ben Bajarin: Well I’m pleased. I’m glad that’s helpful, and I always appreciate the dialogue.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with consumer tech analyst Ben Bajarin at Creative Strategies about the fate of the Chromebook. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 15 August 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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