Chromebooks' success punches Microsoft in the gut

Amazon, NPD Group trumpet sales of the bare-bones laptops in 2013 to consumers and businesses

Chromebooks had a very good year, according to retailer Amazon.com and industry analysts.

And that's bad news for Microsoft.

The pared-down laptops powered by Google's browser-based Chrome OS have surfaced this year as a threat to "Wintel," the Microsoft-Intel oligarchy that has dominated the personal-computer space for decades with Windows machines.

On Thursday, Amazon.com called out a pair of Chromebooks -- one from Samsung, the other from Acer -- as two of the three best-selling notebooks during the U.S. holiday season. The third: Asus' Transformer Book, a Windows 8.1 "2-in-1" device that transforms from a 10.1-in. tablet to a keyboard-equipped laptop.

As of late Thursday, the trio retained their lock on the top three places on Amazon's best-selling-laptop list in the order of Acer, Samsung and Asus. Another Acer Chromebook, one that sports 32GB of on-board storage space -- double the 16GB of Acer's lower-priced model -- held the No. 7 spot on the retailer's top 10.

Chromebooks' holiday success at Amazon was duplicated elsewhere during the year, according to the NPD Group, which tracked U.S. PC sales to commercial buyers such as businesses, schools, government and other organizations.

By NPD's tallies, Chromebooks accounted for 21% of all U.S. commercial notebook sales in 2013 through November, and 10% of all computers and tablets. Both shares were up massively from 2012; last year, Chromebooks accounted for an almost-invisible two-tenths of one percent of all computer and tablet sales.

Stephen Baker of NPD pointed out what others had said previously: Chromebooks have capitalized on Microsoft's stumble with Windows 8. "Tepid Windows PC sales allowed brands with a focus on alternative form factors or operating systems, like Apple and Samsung, to capture significant share of a market traditionally dominated by Windows devices," Baker said in a Monday statement.

Part of the attraction of Chromebooks is their low prices: The systems forgo high-resolution displays, rely on inexpensive graphics chipsets, include paltry amounts of RAM -- often just 2GB -- and get by with little local storage. And their operating system, Chrome OS, doesn't cost computer makers a dime.

The 11.6-in. Acer C720 Chromebook, first on Amazon's top-10 list Thursday, costs $199, while the Samsung Chromebook, at No. 2, runs $243. Amazon prices Acer's 720P Chromebook, No. 7 on the chart, at $300.

The prices were significantly lower than those for the Windows notebooks on the retailer's bestseller list. The average price of the seven Windows-powered laptops on Amazon's top 10 was $359, while the median was $349. Meanwhile, the average price of the three Chromebooks was $247 and the median was $243, representing savings of 31% and 29%, respectively.

In many ways, Chromebooks are the successors to "netbooks," the cheap, lightweight and underpowered Windows laptops that stormed into the market in 2007, peaked in 2009 as they captured about 20% of the portable PC market, then fell by the wayside in 2010 and 2011 as tablets assumed their roles and full-fledged notebooks closed in on netbook prices.

Amazon best sellers
Amazon's best-selling laptops on Friday included Acer and Samsung Chromebooks in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots.
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