Google’s Chromebooks Have Hit Their Stride

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It looks like Microsoft was right to worry about Google’s Chromebook project. According to the latest numbers from NPD, Chromebooks accounted for 21 percent of all laptop sales and almost 10 percent of all computer sales to businesses in 2013. That’s up from virtually nothing in the year before. Given that Apple is irrelevant in commercial channel sales (it commanded a whopping 1.8 percent of sales), Chromebook’s increased share is coming at the cost of Windows.

A few years ago, Chromebooks were a bit of a laughing stock. They were underperforming single-purpose laptops that weren’t even good at the only thing they could do (that is, surf the web). Nobody really warmed up to them, despite their low price. Early sales were more than disappointing, and even Google’s few hardware partners looked like they were only doing this as a way to court Google’s favor. The whole project seemed doomed from the start.

But somehow, Google stuck to its guns and over the last two years, Chromebooks somehow went from being irrelevant to actually making a sizable dent in the laptop market. And not just in the business market. Amazon this week reported that two out of its three best-selling laptops during the holiday season were Chromebooks.

Two years ago, it seemed Chromebooks were only doing somewhat well in schools. Those were, after all, also the only numbers Google ever shared. Over the last year, however, something changed. Google created a more diverse ecosystem of hardware partners that now includes virtually all major laptop manufacturers, including the likes of Lenovo (though only for education), HP, Toshiba and Acer.

With the $1,300 Pixel, Google even designed its own high-end Chromebook. My feeling is that Google gave away more free Pixels to developers at its I/O conference this year than it actually sold (that high purchase price is hard to justify for anybody who doesn’t regularly fly on a private jet, despite the Pixel being a great piece of hardware). What the Pixel did, though, was to show that Google was fully backing this project, which surely helped the ecosystem and potential business customers to warm up the idea, too.

Over the last year, ChromeOS also went from a one-trick pony to something that’s more like a “real” operating system (in the sense that it looks and feels more like a regular PC and less than a laptop that can only run a browser). While Microsoft loves pointing out that Chromebooks are only useful when you’re online (which these days is pretty much true for any computer anyway), one area Google’s engineers worked hard on was adding more offline capabilities.

Today’s Chromebooks are nothing like the old Cr-48 prototype Google once sent out to bloggers in late 2010. The fact that Microsoft has now started making fun of them just shows that it’s concerned about losing market share in the business world. Microsoft should be worried.