Google's Chromebooks have been a long time coming. Google first officially acknowledged their project to make a lightweight, auto-updating, browser-focused operating system just over two years ago, but rumors about the Chrome OS project started many months before that. Chromebooks were first previewed in May, and then shipped on June 15. So where do Chromebooks stand, nearly six months later?
In the consumer market, Chromebooks are slow starters, though exactly how slow is hard to say. Many sources cite a 30,000-unit sales figure, though that's a curiously round number without a source, easily thumb-nailed by multiplying, say, a 5,000-unit sales figure by six months. In any case, a casual survey of coffee shops, workplaces, and other places where one spots laptops hasn't revealed Chromebooks to be popping up all over. But Google's also making a significant push in the education, enterprise, and government markets. Still, while they've done some show-and-tell with pilot customers, Google hasn't released figures for their enterprise efforts.
But Google's been in this position before, with the Google Apps product that's now a good deal more established in the corporate world. The man who headed that effort, Rajen Sheth, is now Group Product Manager of Chrome for Business, and in charge of selling Chromebooks as a component of a Google Apps installation to corporate interests. And you can hear him make the case for Chrome OS, and Chromebooks, in a Q&A at the GigaOM Net:Work conference last week in San Francisco.
Cut to the 5:40 mark if you want to hear an audience member ask Sheth "What's wrong with Chrome?", and "What am I missing?" Sheth references hockey legend Wayne Gretzky's famous quote in saying that Google is "Going to where the puck is going to be" - where web-based apps and client-side apps are virtually indistinguishable.
"That world is getting there, but it's not fully there right now," Sheth said. " ... It reminds me of Google Apps in 2007 ... What you're going to see is continued evolution, every couple months, that's going to make the experience better and better."
It's easy to see that Chromebooks, even at a discounted $349 price, aren't a huge value proposition for home users over a netbook that can run Chrome, in addition to a lot of other apps, or an Apple iPad, which offers the same kind of portability and battery life, once you add on a keyboard case.
And while Google's improved the connectivity and remote desktop access, and added a bit of offline Apps access, Chromebooks only make sense for people who value a no-hassle, very portable laptop that almost always needs to be connected.
If you're a firm that dishes out quite a few laptops to employees - the cost of renting a Chromebook for $28 per month, all costs included and upgrades expected, makes a bit more sense. But Google has to push not only the low costs and minimal hassle of an Apps-based laptop; they have to continue selling the web as a working platform on the whole. It's going to be interesting to see if Sheth and his team can move the puck by themselves, that much further ahead.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.