If you choose for your business strategy to be garnering some of the highest profit margins going down in consumer technology hardware, you might get beat up by an up and comer whose strategy is to gain mastery of the bottom end. That’s exactly what has happened in the first quarter of calendar year 2016. Sales returns indicate that Chromebooks, a product category whose sales numbers have been shrouded in mystery, have outsold MacBooks since the first Chromebook went on sale way back in 2011.
These days, it is well known that the average user does not need much more than the ability to access their various social media accounts, maintain a household financial and task tracking spreadsheet or two, and surf the web and play YouTube videos. Even for a power user, a Chromebookis an excellent platform for that most infernal of tasks, checking and verifying that all of the elements of your streaming of Dark Souls III is up and stable and that all audio and video is going out to your viewers. MacBooks on the other hand, are chased either because the person is a true AV creative, or because the purchaser has fallen prey to the media stumping and hype that PC’s running Windows are useless. And Apple’s Mac-line is hella-expensive in comparison to PC’s of similar power and ginormously more expensive when compared to Chromebooks. In this day and age when many consumers have multiple devices to handle their tech needs (and sometimes just for reliability and redundancy), a Chromebook is a great couch surfing companion, second screen for NetFlix or other streaming viewing, or just for that early AM light-weight, no-nonsense computing platform.
And those are some of these reasons, Chromebooks have outsold Macs in this quarter gone by. IDC claims that about 1.76 million Macs shipped last quarter, in comparison to 2 million Chromebooks (napkin math by many followers of this story). Chromebook numbers are significantly driven by increased uptake in education. Many educational institutions, from high school to collegiate levels, have shifted to hosting a lot of collaboration and classwork coordination and submission using Google Drive and Google Docs. And who wouldn’t. Google’s services, at the entry levels for storage, are free and do not require anything more than signing up for a Gmail account. And nothing keeps you from signing up for as many as you want. A chromebook is THE lowest cost device that can then access those services.
If a kid drops one, replacing it might be as little as $100. They do not need beefy specs. Their maintenance tail for IT types is basically zero. There is no need to push updates to them, or, as is the case often with Windows PC’s, hold back updates for fear that they’ll inject instability into an organization’s application architecture. For all of the advantages they bring to a more corporate consumer, they bring very little baggage. I’ve owned three, and they great little writing devices for bloggers and journalists. More importantly for my own use-case, they are light enough for me to throw in my go-bag along with a beefier PC with very little extra burden.
Now, Chromebooks besting Macs is not a slam dunk comparison. Those sales numbers mean Apple’s revenue for Macs was likely somewhere in between $1.76 and $3.4 billion, while the five or six Chromebook makers shared about $3 million in revenue. There is a lot you cannot do on a Chromebook without a lot of research, trade study, and prep. Sure, you can edit that 20GB stream of MLB The Show 16 with the YouTube editor. But I’d rather use Windows Media Player on a local copy of the video file on a Core i7 machine than deal with the lack of granularity in the web-based editor and upload it after the fact. And audio playback for background music while working is much smoother for me with local files and a desktop player app than Google Play Music. So I could not survive on a Chromebook by itself. But as a morning coffee laptop? Sure. And that might be more prudent than purchasing that $1000 MacBook or, in my case, another “backup” gaming laptop. But then there’s also a lot of reality that runs counter to what a lot of tech journalists claim, that you cannot use a Chromebook at all without wifi. There’s is plenty that you can get done locally without continuous cloud linkage with a Chromebook on the go. And as far as storage goes, while many Chromebooks are only outfitted with 16 GB of storage, there is nothing stopping you from using a 128GB thumb drive or SD / microSD card to supplement it, or a 1TB drive when using it at home.
My cut is that, much like the Samsung Galaxy Note series, which many pundits claimed no one wanted, Chromebooks have won the hearts and minds of at least some pragmatic users and shoppers who have grasped how much you can get done with a web browser and web apps. As more and more offline web apps get deployed to the Chrome Web App Store, that usability score increases. The question is how often do you need the power or complexity of a Mac or even a PC? Only some percentage of a users workflow needs that level of hammer and anvil. And yes, there are plenty of us who just always want that power there to be called upon on-demand. We’re probably the same people who would drive a Mustang every day over a compact car, for the two times a week that we might actually call upon those 400 horses.
If you’re talking about this in a competitive sense, of course Apple’s MacBook sales profits are all its own, whereas those 2 million Chromebooks are aggregated across several PC manufacturers, and no one of the latter gains the financial health bolstering that Apple does from its Mac sales, which nearly match the Chromebook sales. This is more a tale of the uptake indicator that seems to inform that a low-cost, cloud-based approach to classroom interactivity is creeping past comparative consumer uptake of Macs. And that at least some consumers are starting to see both the value and the use-cases that may drive them to seek a Chromebook as an alternative to Windows vice a more expensive Mac.