Google Chromebook: Bigger than a tablet, but less useful

The pricing relative to functionality could be the real stumbling block as Google tries to convert users to a new computing paradigm

More than a year ago, announced an ambitious project to create a new class of device powered by an operating-system version of its Chrome browser. Many months of hyped expectations later, Google finally took the wraps off the first of its Chromebooks at its developer conference last week. While Google has delivered in some ways, the pricing of the Acer and Samsung Chromebooks relative to the functionality offered could spoil the party.

Late last year, Google sent out some developer prototype machines that were dubbed the CR-48. The company has made some impressive additions since those experimental units shipped. First, there's now a native file system that lets users move beyond the Web browsing that is at the heart of the Chrome OS experience. For example, users can perform such traditional tasks such as plugging in a USB flash drive or a digital camera and then interacting with files from those devices. But the file browser that Google has designed is very basic, looking like something that might have shipped with Windows 3.1 decades ago. Google has also included a rudimentary media player for audio and video, with an emphasis on "rudimentary." It's hard to see consumers embracing them when they've become accustomed to richer offerings such as iTunes and Windows Media Player.

Like the CR-48, the new Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer look much like laptops. This might be a mistake. Consumers have certain expectations from laptops, expectations that largely can't be met by a Chrome OS-based machine.

As for the hardware, Samsung will offer 12-in. Wi-Fi models for $449, and a version with 3G support for an additional $50. Both sport batteries that Samsung claims can run all day. Acer's product is a smaller, 11-in. offering that starts at $349. Its battery is rated for only 6.5 hours.

For businesses and those in the education market, Google will offer a rental model based on a three-year term. The price will be fixed, much as a lease, and if terminated early, the full fee would need to be paid.

But let's back up and look at the consumer pricing. Are consumers going to find $350 an attractive entry price for the Chrome OS experience? That same price could get you a very capable Windows laptop that's able to run the Chrome Web browser and deliver much of the Chrome OS experience while offering much more, such as the ability to run the thousands of rich applications that simply cannot be delivered yet through a Web browser. You could also spend a similar amount on a media tablet such as the iPad, whose own differentiated computing experience is bolstered by a rich ecosystem of native applications.

It seems likely that more than a few consumers who buy a Chromebook are going to expect it to be much more like a laptop than it is. Google should be ready for a lot of support calls from users wondering how to quit the browser and where the rest of their applications have gone. I also expect some consumers to be baffled by the difference between Chrome the browser (which Google has been heavily promoting to users on TV ads) and Chrome the operating system.

Of course, the biggest value of the Chromebook is what it can't really do: store data. All changes are stored and reflected in the cloud. Lose your Chromebook or run it over with your car? No problem. Your data is safe somewhere on one of Google's servers. The downside of that cloud dependency is that a disconnected Chromebook can't do much of anything. Google is trying to overcome that deficiency and has announced that key applications such as Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar will be updated to work offline this summer. At this point, though, it's not clear how well that will work and whether the offline option will mitigate the advantage of having everything in the cloud.

For businesses, there could be real appeal in an inherently manageable device that allows maximum control over the user experience, and with little local storage on a Chromebook, there's not much to worry about in terms of data management. But businesses would have to cede control to Google when it comes to things like updates, with cycles and what gets updated all at Google's discretion.

It's still too soon to call success or failure for this effort. The current hardware pricing, however, is going to make the Chromebook a fairly hard sell. I'm surprised Google didn't opt to subsidize these first Chromebooks so that they would be much less costly than other options. Doing so would have given the Chromebook and its model of using the cloud as a personal storage medium a much better shot at becoming firmly established. As things stand, it will take a massive effort on Google's part to evangelize and explain this new computing paradigm to consumers and why expensive single-app devices are appealing in a world of traditional PCs and devices such as media tablets. And as it mounts this education effort, one of the competitors that Google will have to take on is its own Android offering, which lives on many of those alternate devices. Google has done little to explain how these two efforts might coexist.

The Chromebook is interesting, but at the moment it feels more like a science project than a strategic product.

Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.

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