Updated on December 10, 2021
Since their introduction in June 2011 (three years ago), Google’s Chromebook has since grown to become mildly popular among the general public. Not only does it make Chromebooks (and its Chrome OS operating system) the first Linux-based desktop/laptop to widely catch on with the general public (something Linux fans have been longing for for years), but it also seems to be avoiding the mistakes/downsides of both netbooks and various Linux distributions. Even schools are increasingly buying Chromebooks for student use.
But why are Chromebooks becoming popular? And how are they avoiding becoming “Netbooks 2.0” or other Linux-based distributions’ fates?
People know and trust Google
Google’s a familiar, trusted (with caveats/occasional vocal doubts or criticisms) company whose services are ubiquitous and widely used by everyone online. Linux distros, meanwhile, are “what’s that?” at worst and “that’s some geeky thing” at best.
Chromebooks are cheap
The cheapest Chromebook per Best Buy’s website starts at $199, with models ranging between $199 and $399. While there’s the outlier “Pixel” model (priced at the MacBook-like $1299-$1499), for the most part, the most expensive Chromebook rivals the most bargain-level Windows laptops. Otherwise, buying a Chromebook is in a similar price range as buying an Android tablet. For those that need a cheap computer (schools, those on a tighter budget, etc.), Chromebooks are a good thing.
(Update 7/14/14) Microsoft’s announced a line of Chromebook-like Windows laptops priced similarly to Chromebooks. This doesn’t discount from Chromebooks being inexpensive, of course.
Chromebooks have laptop-level functionality and quality
Unlike netbooks, Chromebooks come in the same screen sizes as most laptops (11 inches to 14 inches), and thus can come in a more familiar laptop form factor (with USB ports, etc.). Netbooks were never meant to be laptop-replacements, but rather as filling in a role between smartphones and full-size laptops. As a result, netbooks compromised a lot of features; the keyboards alone were way too small for someone like me to type on (maybe not to a grade-schooler, but…).
People don’t want to install an operating system
Sorry, Linux fans, but the general public expects to go to a store, choose a model, and buy a computer with an operating system pre-installed. There’s little interest in choosing one of a myriad of Linux distros, downloading it, burning an installation CD/creating a USB stick, and going through the sometimes-less-than-fun experience of installing an operating system. This factor’s probably one of the things that’s hurt Linux uptake the most. Thus, Google offering a Linux distro pre-installed’s helped avoid this issue. Coming pre-installed also means knowing everything will work out of the box; for most people, computers are an appliance like their TV sets or tool like their kitchen appliances, not something they want to tinker with like a hobbyist or relish fixing if something goes wrong.
Chromebooks are sold at “normal” electronics stores
“But you can buy pre-installed Linux computers from System 76/an obscure corner of Dell’s website/etc.!” True, but that doesn’t matter to the average person, who’s never heard of said sites anyway. To the public, computers are bought at “normal” familiar stores like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, the Apple Store, or even regional electronics stores. Not only does being sold at those locations imply more mainstream support, but it also lets the public see and try this “newfangled” Chromebook in person. The average person won’t buy a computer running an unfamiliar operating system sight-unseen from an online store (that’d be harder to return it to versus Best Buy).
Benefitting from being a large company, Google’s marketed the Chromebook on TV, giving it mainstream visibility. Not an advantage other Linux distros have, of course.
People already use tons of Google services and “cloud” services
Google dominates most people’s online lives to a sometimes-heavy degree. Even I rely on a lot of Google services (ones I could replace if it ever got to that point, but still…). With Chrome becoming a widely popular browser, a whole laptop that uses Chrome as the operating system and ties heavily into the “cloud” doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
and won’t pull a “release an older Windows version to netbook hardware” this time (plus they’re busy dealing with the Surface)
One of the factors that killed netbooks was that the public was dissatisfied (and unfamiliar) with their Linux operating systems. Another factor was Microsoft trying to cut off Linux’s growing presence by releasing a cut-down version of Windows XP for netbooks. While the tactic worked (for the time netbooks remained popular), Microsoft couldn’t pull the same thing today. Since the netbooks era, Android and iOS have become ubiquitous on smartphones and tablets, so the idea of a “different” operating system might not be as foreign as it was in 2008. (It helps ChromeOS uses familiar Windows-style/Chrome browser elements, such as bottom menubar, tabs, etc.)
On top of that, Microsoft’s busy trying to keep afloat its own attempt at tablet/laptop-alternative, the Surface, with so far lackluster results. Microsoft’s at least been more successful with its Windows Phone OS on smartphones.
(Update 7/14/14) Looks like Microsoft does plan on taking on Chromebooks directly via Chromebook-like Windows laptops, after all. Read my post on the odds of this succeeding.
Chrome OS is a user-friendly Linux distribution
Besides coming pre-installed, Chrome OS as noted above is easy to use. If one’s used a web browser, getting up to speed with Chrome OS should be simple. One also won’t have to deal with antivirus software, downsides some other Linux distros might have (getting certain laptop features to work, bugs requiring a terminal to fix, bizarre aesthetics or usability, etc.), and so forth. Google also supports Chromebooks with updates fairly well.
Unlike the open-source operating system Chrome OS is based on, Chromium OS, Chrome OS supports DRM-using services like Netflix. While this is a drawback for some Linux advocates, the general public only cares about whether or not familiar services like Netflix will work, which it won’t for other Linux distros. I found that out the hard way, when my mother asked why the Xubuntu-based PC I’ve given her doesn’t support Netflix (she’s otherwise been happy with Xubuntu, however).
Chromebooks are competing with other laptops/desktops, not tablets
Another thing that killed netbooks was the rise of the tablet, particularly the iPad. Tablets did the “fill a role between the smartphone and regular PC” role much better than netbooks, thus leading to netbooks’ death. Chromebooks, however, are in a laptop-sized form factor, and designed to be comparable to conventional laptops. Thus, it’s less likely some new tech in the near future will kill Chromebooks off.
Google also has a lot invested in Chrome OS and Google cloud services, so they won’t kill off Chromebooks anytime soon either. Chromebooks matter a lot more to Google’s future than, say, Google Reader. Google’s even announced plans to tie Android more closely to Chrome OS, which would be a big boost for Chromebooks’ future.
The public has become more used to non-Windows/Mac operating systems
As I noted above, the public’s gotten used to non-Windows and -Mac operating systems thanks to the rise of smartphones (with iOS and Android). Thus making the Chromebook a bit less of a hard sell to the general public. Android’s also made the idea of a Google-based operating system less odd sounding. Of course, one’s feelings about “the cloud” and/or Google itself might also complicate things…
Overall, while I wasn’t sure about Chromebook’s future a year and a half ago, since early 2013, the Google-backed notebook’s become a moderate success. While they lack the all-purpose form factor of traditional Windows and Mac laptops, Chromebooks are useful for those seeking basic functionality: Internet services, writing, some media, and so forth. The low price also makes it easier to take a chance on buying a Chromebook, and makes basic computing more affordable to many. On top of that, Chromebooks are backed by a familiar company, are easy to use, have mainstream support and availability, and aren’t trying to replace or usurp an existing technology.
Although there’s a few downsides (the reliance on the “cloud”/Google for a lot of functionality particularly), I think the Chromebook’s become the most successful “Linux on the desktop” for the general public. It didn’t happen the way many Linux advocates would like, but like its mobile world cousin Android, Chrome OS/Chromebooks has achieved the goal of offering a feasible Linux-based alternative to Windows and OS X.
Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.