Chromebooks spank Windows

Over the holidays, Microsoft and friends tried to beat back the rise of Chromebooks. They failed. Badly.

Last summer Microsoft talked its partners into trying to stop the growing popularity of Chromebooks in its tracks by making a big push during the holiday season. While full retail results won’t be in for a while, we do know the laptop sales results from the most important retailer of them all, Amazon. Guess what. With that retailer at least, Microsoft and its buddies failed. Miserably.

Amazon reports that its top three computers sold over the holidays were — drum-roll, please — Chromebooks. It was that way last year too. Oh, wait, I’m wrong; Microsoft did worse this year. In 2013, one of Amazon’s top three sellers was a Windows machine, The Asus’ Transformer Book, a Windows 8.1 “2-in-1” device that transforms from a 10.1-in. tablet to a keyboard-equipped laptop.

Forgive me, but I can’t resist the urge to extrapolate from those Amazon results and assume that the big Microsoft push was a bust elsewhere as well. If it turns out I’m wrong about this, I promise to rectify it by mentioning it in another column down the road. Watch this space.

But to continue assuming the worst from Microsoft’s point of view: This is so not what it had hoped for. Microsoft assumed that by pulling out the same old tricks that had put an end to Linux netbooks in 2009, it could do in Chromebooks as well. Wrong!

The plan was to offer OEMs Windows 8.1 With Bing essentially for nothing. Why such a low, low price? Well, back in February of last year, Microsoft had cut the price of Windows 8 on low-end devices by 70% and that had failed to get manufacturers or customers excited. The goal of the holiday “we can’t possibly go any lower” price was to enable vendors to sell low-end computers at bottom-of-the-rung Chromebook prices — from $199 to $249 — and still make a profit. The plan sounded like a winner to Microsoft and friends.

The OEMs certainly bought into it. Asus’ EeeBook X205 laptop and HP’s Stream 14 were offered for $199, while Acer offered the Aspire Switch 10 and 11 2-in-1 tablets/notebooks for under $400. So Microsoft and its buddies entered the last quarter of 2014 pretty darn sure that Chromebooks would be beat back and life would return to “normal,” where Windows would be the only real choice for anyone who wasn’t a tie-dyed-in-the-wool Mac fan.

And they end up seeing Chromebooks doing better than ever. (OK, OK, at Amazon, at any rate.)

It’s interesting to note that the makers of the three top sellers, Acer and HP, both supported the new low-end Windows devices. Yes, that’s right: Both companies offered close-to-identical Chromebook and Windows 8.1 models at the same price points, but buyers chose the Chromebooks.

Now, I really like Chromebooks and I really dislike Windows 8.x laptops, but I’m still surprised by these results. I was nearly as sure as Microsoft was that its plan would work. I thought Chromebooks would hang in there, but I never expected them to beat the cheap Windows 8.x devices so thoroughly.

It appears that Windows 8.x has done what Vista and other notable Microsoft failures couldn’t do. It’s managed to disgust once true-blue Microsoft customers so much that they are looking elsewhere for their PCs. And Chromebooks are becoming their laptop of choice.

This is a big blow for Microsoft, even though I foresee it moving away from the desktop for its profits anyway. In fact, if those holiday sales translate to other retailers besides Amazon, and if Windows 8.2 — er, I mean Windows 10 — isn’t a huge success, it looks to me like the desktop market of 2017 may have a new leader: Chrome OS.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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