Google Chromebooks finally arrived this spring and initial sales to consumers have been respectable but Google's Chromebook subscription plan for businesses has yet to catch on. I spent a lot of time with Google's CR-48 prototype when it was first released and then with Samsung's Series 5 Chromebook more recently. While Chromebooks have the potential to win corporate customers, I still think three things need to happen before Chromebooks will attract consumers and businesses in large numbers.
1. Fix Web incompatibilities
The biggest disappointment I had in dealing with Chromebooks was that a surprising number of Web sites simply don't load correctly. Some of this has to do with the Google Chrome browser in general. There are sites that just don't work very well in Chrome. Most of this is due to the sites not complying with Web standards (designing for IE) or to incompatibility issues with plug-ins. Much of this is beyond Google's control, but that doesn't help much when a site you need to access to do your job doesn't work. That said, there are also Web sites that should work in Chromebooks but inexplicable don't. For example, Google Analytics doesn't load correctly (you can't change the date range to view, for example). This is bizarre, since Analytics works just fine in Chrome on Windows and Mac. Google needs to work on fixes and workarounds to make more sites accessible on Chromebooks, since the Web is their primary feature.
2. Implement offline access
The other big functionality problem with Chromebooks is that you have to be online at all times in order to use them. If your connection gets spotty or you are somewhere that doesn't have a good connection (or access is too expensive), then you're stuck and the Chromebook is completely worthless. Google has promised that offline support is coming, at least for stuff like Google Apps and Google Docs (and there are reports that it's in testing), but we're still waiting. Google is also going to need to make an effort to get important third party developers on the bandwagon to make their sites available in offline mode in Chrome.
3. Drop the price tag
Even if Google fixes the page loading and offline problems, Chromebooks will still need one big change to make them a lot more attractive to buyers: They've got to get cheaper. The Samsung Series 5 is $430 (Wi-Fi) or $500 (3G) and the Acer Chromebook is $350. That's still too much to spend for an underpowered machine that doesn't do anything but surf the Web. At $200-$300, Chromebooks would be a lot more interesting. Businesses can lease Chromebooks for $28/month for three years, which includes some basic support and service. That gives each machine a total cost of over $1000 for the lease period. I think we'll see just as many (if not more) businesses interested in buying these at two hundred dollars a pop and simply replacing them if they fail. Google and its hardware partners still need to get the price right on Chromebooks, and recent indications are that they may actually raise the price of Chromebooks in the next iteration. That would be a big mistake.
More reading on Chromebooks
- While IT pros scoff, Google Chromebooks will likely seduce businesses
- Apple cloud vs. Google cloud: The philosophical differences
- ZDNet: Future Google Chromebooks to switch from Intel Atom to Core series processors, push prices above $500
- CNET: Samsung, Acer Google Chromebooks still strong on Amazon
- ZDNet: Five Chromebook concerns for businesses
- ZDNet: Google's tepid Chromebook reviews meaningless: It's all about business
- ZDNet: Chromebooks: The choice of the AARP generation?
- ZDNet: The first Chromebook Review: Samsung Series 5
- ZDNet: What if Chromebooks were made by Apple?
- ZDNet: Google Chromebooks taking off with Virgin America
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.