The rise of Google's Chromebook army

Google Chromebook Army

An interesting thing is happening in the world of Google's Chrome OS -- and in many ways, it's reminiscent of the evolution we've seen in Android.

Chrome OS, like Android, started off as a small-scale project with just a couple key companies on board. Like Android, its earliest incarnations were a little rough around around the edges. And like Android, it spent much of its infancy on the receiving end of heavy skepticism from critics, many of whom said it stood no chance of breaking into a market with established OS preferences and dominant platform leaders.

We all know how that story panned out for Android. And while it's on a much smaller scale -- and in a very different type of market -- we're starting to see signs that Chrome OS may be headed in the same general direction.

The latest sign comes by way of HP, which announced its first Chrome OS device this morning. Ironically enough, in the big picture, what makes HP's new Chromebook significant to our story is that there's absolutely nothing significant about it.

HP Pavilion Chromebook

The HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook, as it's known, features a slightly larger screen than existing Chromebook models but the same 1366x768 resolution. It's bigger and clunkier than the leading models and has notably worse battery life -- a measly 4.25 hours compared to the 6-plus hours on some of its siblings. There's nothing remarkable about its processing power, storage capabilities, or anything else, really.

And here's the kicker: It actually costs more than other Chromebooks -- $330 compared to $249 for Samsung's mainstream model.

So what the Gates am I getting at? Here it is: The fact that HP's Chromebook is wildly underwhelming speaks volumes about the broader state of the Chrome OS ecosystem. And the message it's sending is a positive one.

Sounds crazy, I know. But stick with me for a minute.

Thus far, Chrome OS has remained a niche platform -- just like Android was back in '09. It's generally had one primary flagship-like device and one or two other less spotlighted options.

In the last few months, though, the Chrome OS stage has been steadily expanding. HP's Chromebook joins a recent $200 device from Acer and a $429 offering from Lenovo. Suddenly, there isn't just a Chromebook to buy; there's a whole selection of Chromebooks to choose from. And there's really nothing special about most of 'em.

Google Chromebooks

Don't get me wrong: There's nothing particularly terrible about HP's new Chromebook device -- or Acer's or Lenovo's, for that matter. But there's also nothing particularly great about any of them. They're basically just less compelling versions of Samsung's $249 Chromebook -- the subject of Google's massive marketing campaign and the clear flagship model of the moment.

So why is that a good thing for Chrome OS? In terms of trends, it shows that Chrome OS is becoming an attractive platform for manufacturers to target. Sure, most of them are missing the mark right now, but that's all part of the game. Just think about how many different Android phones are out there these days and how many of them are ones you'd actually recommend to a friend. It's a much bigger playing field, but the basic principle is the same.

Think of it as a form of commoditization: The very fact that multiple manufacturers are now dipping their toes into the water and releasing largely indistinguishable products is a sign that Chrome OS is reaching a level of public acceptance. It's certainly not something you'd see happen two years into a "dead-on-arrival" experiment, as many pundits proclaimed Chrome OS to be.

And there's more: Recommendations aside, just like with Android, it appears people are buying even the less impressive Chromebook products. Just last week, Acer told Bloomberg its Chrome OS computers were accounting for a strong 5 to 10 percent of its U.S. shipments while its Windows 8-based products were failing to meet expectations.

The higher profile Chrome OS model, meanwhile, has remained in high demand since its debut last October. Amazon lists Samsung's $249 Chromebook as the #2 top-selling item of its "Computers and Accessories" category (it held the #1 spot for quite some time) and many retailers -- Best Buy, Staples, and Google's own Play Store -- are still struggling to keep it in stock.

Android Power Twitter

Chrome OS will never be the end-all computing solution for everyone, but all of these factors tell us it's a platform that is right for a lot of people -- and, in all likelihood, is only going to grow larger and more diverse in the months ahead.

Whether or not Chrome OS is right for you, that kind of choice in technology -- and the competition, innovation, and focus on consumer value it invariably encourages -- is something worth celebrating.


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