Analysts blast crappy Chromebooks reporting, defend platform's potential

But they dispute the possible impact on Microsoft's notebook dominance

Media reports two weeks ago that Chromebooks had had a successful 2013 drew criticism from analysts, including one whose data sparked the coverage.

"There has been a ton of misreporting as many lazy reporters and bloggers have characterized this as all sales, which it wasn't, or even consumer sales, which it most assuredly was not," said Stephen Baker of the NPD Group, in an email reply to questions. "It has been very personally distressing to me that so many reporters/bloggers refuse to read, or don't know what commercial channels mean."

Baker was referring to information NPD released Dec. 23 that said Chromebooks accounted for 21% of all U.S. notebook sales through the commercial retail channel for the first 11 months of 2013.

In his email, Baker defined the commercial channel as the distributors -- like CDW and Ingram Micro -- that many businesses, government agencies, schools and other organizations use to buy personal computers and other devices. His data did not include consumer sales, nor PCs sold by OEMs, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, directly to businesses.

Computerworld reported on Baker's findings -- as well as's tout about Chromebooks grabbing two of the three spots in its holiday best-selling computers list -- on Dec. 27. The news story failed to clarify that NPD's figures tracked only those sales through distributors, but did note that the numbers were for commercial sales only.

When other reports assumed that NPD's data included all U.S. sales, including consumer, or that the numbers reflected all business sales, not just retail through distributors, skeptics wondered what the writers, or their source, Baker, had been smoking.

"I know it's a slow news week but three bull**** stories is a bit much," tweeted analyst Benedict Evans on Dec. 29, citing "Chromebook explosion" as one of the trio. "All nonsense," Evans said.

Critics of the reports scoffed at the data, misinterpreted or not, saying that they'd never seen a Chromebook in the wild, implying that meant the devices could not exist in numbers, and that Google's browser-based Chrome OS, which powers Chromebooks, would never threaten Windows' dominant position in notebook operating systems.

Even Microsoft got in on the act.

A spokesperson emailed Computerworld with a list of what he called "observations," citing data from researcher IDC to claim that if a "fuller measure of sales" were used, Chromebooks would account for just 2% of the global personal computer market, that seven of Amazon's top 10 were Windows-based systems, and that because only about 20 Chromebook notebooks were for sale on Amazon during the holidays, compared to hundreds of Windows laptops, "It is only natural that the few [Chromebook] models would cluster at the top."

Nonetheless, Baker and others defended the idea that Chromebooks did well in 2013.

"Chrome had a fabulous year," said Baker, talking about Chrome OS, not the multi-platform browser by that name.

"Yes, I think [the story] was much too overblown with the angles much of the media took, [but] that being said, the growth of the category is a key one to watch," said Ben Bajarin, analyst with Creative Strategies, via email. "What is valid is the potential of this product to further disrupt Microsoft."

Previously, Baker had contended that Chromebooks were one mark of how OEMs, whether by choice or necessity, have capitalized on Windows 8's slow start. "Tepid Windows PC sales allowed brands with a focus on alternative form factors or operating systems ... to capture significant share of a market traditionally dominated by Windows devices," Baker said two weeks ago.

But in his email Baker said he didn't buy the idea that it was a zero-sum game for Windows and Chromebook OS.

"On the subject of Chromebooks versus clamshell notebooks, I don't subscribe to the idea that [the former] are taking sales from Windows," Baker said. "In my view, they are just as likely, actually more likely, to be taking sales from Android tablets or iPads, or just expanding the market than they are taking sales from Windows PCs in these business-to-business and education markets."

Bajarin agreed on the tablet impact, but not that Chromebooks didn't have the potential to hurt Microsoft. "Chromebooks need to be looked at in the same light as tablets to a degree, in that a sale of a tablet, particularly a non-Windows one, and the sale of a Chromebook, are sales of products that are chipping away at Microsoft's once-dominant position," Bajarin said.

Chrome OS versus Windows RT
The usage share of Chrome OS in the last two months of 2013 was miniscule, but climbed rapidly starting in mid-December. Microsoft's Windows RT was included for reference. (Data: StatCounter.)
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