Analysts blast crappy Chromebooks reporting, defend platform's potential

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

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In a Dec. 29 piece published on Techpinions (subscription required), Bajarin elaborated on his Chromebook take, citing education's interest in the devices as student tools for accessing Web-based curriculum.

"While Chromebooks have a great deal of upside as they evolve, they are being used as specific-purpose devices in nearly all markets today," Bajarin wrote. "This is both the potential of the upside but also the product's challenge in going up against more general-purpose computing devices. Over the next few years, whether its role is as specific-purpose or general-purpose will wait to be seen."

Other critics took aim at the disparity between the talk of Chromebook sales and the lack of online usage evidence from Web metrics firms to corroborate those claims.

"That Chromebooks are out there is not in doubt, but much like Android, there is an intriguing disconnect between the reported sales and the evidence of usage online," said Forbes contributor Ewan Spence on the publication's website on Dec. 30.

But Chrome OS does show up in some statistics.

Irish analyst company StatCounter, for example, has plotted usage share of Chrome OS both worldwide and in the U.S. StatCounter calculates usage share by tallying page views, essentially showing how active users of a particular OS are on the Internet.

(Metrics rival Net Applications, meanwhile, tracks user share by counting unique visitors to its clients' websites, effectively generating something close to a percentage of systems that run a specific operating system. Net Applications has yet to publish Chrome OS user share numbers, however. Last week, the company's head of marketing said, "We still haven't seen enough Chrome OS usage to start including it in our reports yet," when Computerworld asked for data.)

According to StatCounter, Chrome OS powered an average of 0.33% of all U.S. desktops and tablets in December, up from 0.15% in November. In the first five days of January, Chrome OS's share climbed to 0.42%.

While those numbers are small -- December's 0.33% is equivalent to 33 page views out of each 10,000 -- Chrome OS' trend line was up markedly between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, 2013. In other words, while relatively few people may be using a Chromebook to reach the Internet -- very few, StatCounter's data hinted, compared to, say, Windows 7 -- their online activity more than doubled in two months.

Chrome OS activity also tracked significantly higher than did Microsoft's Windows RT, which powers the Redmond Wash. firm's own Surface RT and Surface 2 tablets.

StatCounter pegged the U.S. usage share of Windows RT -- the combination of the 2012 original and 2013's Windows RT 8.1 -- at 0.07% for November, 0.12% for December and 0.16% for the first five days of 2014.

But Baker objected to the usage share as a measurement of Chromebooks' success. "The whole page view thing is just goofy, in my opinion," said Baker. "It measures installed base not current sales, and the two things are only marginally related. There is no way Chrome OS, or Windows RT for that matter, can have anything in terms of share."

Still, Chromebooks could develop into yet another threat for Microsoft, which is facing trouble on multiple fronts, including -- as the progress of Chrome OS shows -- desertions by its most stalwart partners.

"The biggest question to address with these products that are stealing sales from Windows products and ecosystems is which markets," Bajarin pointed out. "This is why the key to Chromebooks was to know that NPD's numbers were to commercial organizations and in this case mostly schools. But if Chromebooks pick up in business, which is a harder short-term sell, then this would be even more concerning to Microsoft."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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