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Can Google Chromebooks Go Mainstream?

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This product class still has tiny market share.

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Don't believe the hype: Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Chromebooks are just not popular.

Chromebook statistics tend to be abused by the media. In late 2013, many journalists falsely claimed Chromebooks had 21% of the US notebook market based upon a statistic from NPD. And in April, others went gaga when ABI Research said 2.1 million Chromebooks were sold in 2013. ABI also forecast that sales would hit 28 million units in 2019, an annualized growth rate of 28%.

But in 2013, total PC sales exceeded 300 million units. If we assume roughly half of that is notebooks and allow some leeway for ABI's estimates, then Chromebooks have single-digit market share.

Chromebooks also generate minimal Web traffic. According to Web analytics company StatCounter, which aggregates data from over 3 million websites, the Chrome OS on which Chromebooks run accounted for just 0.2% of traffic in April 2014. That number is growing steadily, but it's still just a blip.

Another popular area for Chromebook-related data abuse (which I committed myself) is Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) sales rankings -- specifically, the fact so many of the best-selling laptops on Amazon are Chromebooks.

Given the low total sales of Chromebooks noted above, this "data" can be thrown out immediately. It only shows that Amazon tech shoppers are early adopters. I would note that Amazon sales rankings can be very, very useful for certain types of analysis.

Clearly, Chromebooks are not big. 

But Google is making a real push.

On Tuesday, Google and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) held a press conference to announce a host of new Chromebooks from the likes of Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), Lenovo, and others.

And that means it's time to ask: Can Google Chromebooks go mainstream?

My answer is yes -- but it's complicated.

I hope you don't think I'm inherently biased against Chromebooks. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I see Chromebooks as a deadly threat to Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows juggernaut.

Chromebooks are dirt cheap and very well suited for the way people use computers today -- as an access point to the Internet. We're clearly moving from a local storage-based paradigm to a streaming/cloud-based one.

There will always be be people who need powerful computers for serious gaming and video editing, but most users' needs are pretty basic, and Chromebooks fit the bill at an awfully low price.

But there's a reason Chromebooks haven't quite taken off yet -- there are still obstacles to overcome.

Marketing

Techies are pretty good at figuring out whether the Chromebook suits their needs in terms of functionality. The general public, however, needs more handholding, and the current marketing message for Google's product doesn't feel welcoming enough.

For example, on the main Chromebook page, Google does a great job of explaining some benefits like rapid start-up, a lack of annoying software updates, and built-in virus protection. 

However, in the apps section, there's an overarching emphasis on Google properties such as Docs and Play. Third-party apps such as Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) get mentioned, but overall, it's very Google-centric.

It would be ideal if Google flat-out said things like "you can use Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) just like on a PC or Mac."

Google really needs to get that literal -- especially since it places a large emphasis on the word "apps."

People may just not get that Chromebooks offer an excellent straight Web-browsing experience.

Offline Functionality

Chromebooks are making improvements in their offline functionality, but there's still room for improvement. For example, assuming a Chromebook has space on its drive, Gmail and Google Drive should have offline functionality automatically enabled, kicking in seamlessly when there's no Web connection.

I'm nitpicking a bit here, but offline functionality is the Chromebook's weakest spot and an easy attack spot for rivals like Microsoft.

The Microsoft Office Challenge

Not having Microsoft Office is a reason many people won't use Chromebooks, especially in the workplace. I would like to see Google go on the attack here and turn the Microsoft Office argument on its head: Explain to people why they don't need Microsoft Office.

Microsoft Office has a superior feature set, especially for businesses, but for many consumers, Google Drive offers a perfectly fine experience.

Drive autosaves, has no stupid file directories to deal with, and is backed up automatically by Google. In other words, it prevents people from getting themselves into trouble. And Drive does have compatibility with Office file types for those who need to open or edit an Office doc now and again.

And Finally, a Need to Explain What Problem the Chromebook Is Solving 

What if we just don't need something new?

Think about the tablet slowdown and the collapse of the netbook market.

What if the world just doesn't need another variation on the personal computer?

Is that crazy?

Have a question, complaint, or other response to this article? Send it to mcomeau@minyanville.com, and I'll extend the conversation in a second article.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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