8 years on from the first Chromebooks: Google was right about them

Opinion post by
C. Scott Brown

Eight years ago on this day, at Google I/O 2011, Google announced the very first commercial Chromebooks: the Samsung Series 5 and the Acer AC700.

To give you an idea of how long ago this was, the company also announced at that event a new version of Android which would be known as Ice Cream Sandwich and a music streaming service called Google Music Beta (which eventually became Google Play Music).

The launch of the first commercial Chromebooks didn’t go very smoothly, at least from a critical standpoint. One critic called the Acer AC700 “essentially a large netbook” while another reviewer called the Samsung Series 5 “basically a browser with a keyboard.”

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The very notion of a Chromebook — a cheaper laptop with complete reliance on an internet connection and cloud services — seemed to go too much against the grain for critics and consumers at the time. The Register even ran an article in late 2011 titled, “Chromebooks: The flop of 2011?”

Imagine how shocked those folks would have been if you told them that by 2016, Chromebooks would outsell macOS-based computers in the United States, or that over 60 percent of all mobile computing hardware purchased by educational institutions today are Chromebooks.

You likely would have been laughed out of the room.

Google bet big on the Chromebook

An image of the CR-48 Chromebook prototype, first launched in 2010. Tech Republic

Google had been working on Chrome OS — the Linux-based operating system that powers Chromebooks — since as early as 2006 when Googler Kan Liu and his team hacked together a Linux netbook that booted up in less than ten seconds. Liu was developing Windows apps for Google at the time and was frustrated with how overly-complicated the OS was and how that over-complication took away from the user experience.

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Over the next few years, Google developed Chrome OS internally as an internet-based operating system that could boot in seconds and run just fine on low-end hardware. The mantra of the development seemed to be “keep it simple”; in fact, the development team first focused on taking away as many settings, menus, and features as it could without hurting the average user experience.

In December 2010, Google revealed the CR-48 laptop, shown above. The all-black, unbranded, made-of-rubber machine was clunky, ugly, and underpowered. It existed only as a prototype to give to early testers for the sole purpose of playing with Chrome OS.

The first Chromebook wasn’t available for sale and existed solely as a platform to test Chrome OS.

To make things as clear as possible, when Sundar Pichai unveiled the CR-48, he famously said: “The hardware exists only to test the software.”

When the first commercial Chromebooks arrived, critics and consumers were nonplussed. The biggest complaint was the fact that the laptops were priced too high (starting at $350, in the case of the AC700) and too limiting to be worth it. When it comes right down to it, it makes sense: why would you pay $350 for a laptop that can’t run any of the Windows or Mac programs you need (or at least think you need)?

Despite these early setbacks, Google was determined to make Chromebooks work. In one of the smartest moves the company has made, it took Chromebooks to a much-neglected market segment: the classroom.

Success came slowly — But it came

After a while, the thing that brought Chromebooks down at the beginning — namely how limiting they were by only allowing you to do basic things — became their greatest strength. With Chromebooks being so uncomplicated, educational institutions saw in them a system that could be easily maintained and bought cheap.

Google saw this as an opportunity and started to work that angle. It started pushing OEMs to develop Chromebooks that specifically work well in classroom settings by making them durable, lightweight, simple, and overall inexpensive.

From 2012 to 2017, Chromebooks gobbled up the education market from rivals Apple and Microsoft.

By 2012, Chromebooks made up five percent of classroom mobile products in the United States, which isn’t bad at all for just a year of existence. By 2017, though, Chromebooks made up just under 60 percent of the same market.

This unbelievably fast growth took competitors Apple and Microsoft by surprise. Apple’s market share in the education segment dropped 33 percent during this same time period, while Microsoft’s decreased by 21 percentage points.

See Also: The best Chromebooks of CES 2019

With Chromebooks doing well in schools, it was only a matter of time before they started doing well with general consumers. With parents buying Chromebooks for their children and then finding that they themselves enjoy the simplicity and ease of using one, sales started to go up.

Chrome OS now has an overall market share of a little more than six percent in the U.S., according to StatCounter. That’s an incredible amount when you consider the operating system didn’t even exist ten years ago.

The success of the Chromebook is only going to grow

google stadia logo at gdc 2019

Chrome OS eventually expanded and can now run both Linux apps as well as Android apps. This opened up the possibilities for Chromebooks as now they could do pretty much anything a standard PC can do.

However, a low-powered Chromebook still can’t replace a high-performance PC. Or can it?

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Earlier this year, Google unveiled its cloud gaming product called Google Stadia. Using Stadia, gamers can play AAA titles using nothing but a browser. Google’s servers handle the workload of running the game and simply stream it to a user’s computer over the internet.

This product will enable a person with even the cheapest of Chromebooks to play the most recent of gaming titles at 1080p/60fps. Gamers will no longer need to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to build a PC rig or buy the latest expensive console. The gaming field will be leveled.

Google’s cloud-based game-streaming service Stadia is proof that a Chromebook could be the only PC you’ll need in the future.

Stadia is just the beginning. Soon pretty much anything you do on a computer will be processed in the cloud and streamed to your device, whether through your broadband at home or your future 5G service on the go. You won’t need an expensive graphics card to render video edits or a powerful processor to compute complicated code strings. Instead, you’ll just need a browser.

This, without a doubt, will fundamentally change how we view personal computing. There will be people in developing countries who will grow up learning how to use a computer by using a Chromebook and professionals who have long-depended on Windows jumping ship to Chrome OS when they realize their $1,000 laptop is overkill.

Google played the long game with Chrome OS, and its efforts are just now starting to bear major fruit. It’s very likely that, in a matter of years, Chromebooks will be viewed as one of the company’s crowning achievements.

NEXT: How to enable Developer Mode on a Chromebook

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