Sales of Chromebooks, the low-cost, simple-to-use notebooks, will reach more than 5 million this year, accounting for about 2% of all personal computers, Gartner forecast Monday.
So Microsoft, which has dismissed Chromebooks as unworthy of the name "notebook" — and along the way made some wonder why it deigned to acknowledge the upstart — may be right to hammer the rival. While Chromebooks will remain a niche player, sales of laptops powered by Google's Chrome OS will almost triple to 14.4 million by 2017, said Gartner.
That number, if it comes to pass, would put Chromebooks at 5% of all personal computers expected to sell in 2017, near what the Mac has now.
For 2014, Gartner projected Chromebook sales of 5.2 million, up 79% from 2.9 million the year before. The vast bulk of this year's Chromebooks will be snapped up by the education sector, notably K-12, as were those bought last year.
"The notebook market is not doing well, so OEMs are trying to find a solution," said Isabelle Durand, a Gartner analyst, in a Monday interview as she explained why Chromebooks were making small inroads. "After the netbook market collapsed, they've been looking for a solution, a solution to the price [problem]."
The personal computer business has been in a slump, nine consecutive quarters of shipment declines and counting, and netbooks — cheap, lightweight, underpowered Windows laptops — are just a faded memory. Netbooks stormed into the market in 2007 but sales of the sub-$300 devices peaked in 2009 when they captured about 20% of the portable PC market. They then fell by the wayside in 2010-2011 as tablets assumed their roles and more powerful, larger-screen notebooks closed in on netbook prices.
Chromebooks have sometimes been called the successor to netbooks, partly because of their low prices — several models list for under $250, and are often discounted to less than $200 — partly because of their simple-to-use pitch, partly because of their smaller screens.
With the expected rise in Chromebook sales over the next several years — and a flat, if that, industry — the hardware will steal share from Windows notebooks or, in some educational settings, tablets like Apple's iPad. The former is what has Microsoft concerned.
"Microsoft should not ignore the Chromebook market. They're priced low, they're easy to manage," said Durand.
Once-stalwart Microsoft partners, including Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, have all dipped toes into the Chromebook waters, a move they would not have dared to make three years ago. That speaks, more than anything, to Windows' current weaknesses, including licensing costs and the pushback against Windows 8.
Analysts like Durand remain bullish on Chromebooks' chances of breaking out of its educational-only market, which would further complicate Microsoft's life, and that of OEMs sticking with Windows. Durand cited specific use cases in business — real estate agents and hotel receptionists were two — as possible wins for Chromebooks.
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