When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) first launched its Chromebook laptops running Chrome OS last year, they quickly flopped and were derided as pricey devices that amounted to little more than an Internet browser. For example, when CNET reviewed the model updated this summer that started at $449, the site didn't hold anything back with its criticism:
- "As it currently stands, it's merely an invitation to pay a lot of money to be part of a Google experiment. And you're the test subject."
- "I applaud Chrome OS and its simplicity, but if you want a taste of it, here's my advice on how to get it for free: download the Chrome browser on your computer, and then install your choice of apps from the Chrome Web Store. There, you're done."
- "There's no good reason to buy a Chromebook at this price."
Well, it seems like Big G has taken this constructive criticism and, well, constructed a much more compelling offering with Samsung: the $249 Chromebook unveiled last week. In addressing the biggest complaint about older Chromebooks (the price) and repositioning the laptop as a secondary computer "for everyone," Google has nailed it.
Chrome OS has always been characterized as a lightweight operating system. In that sense, it should be accompanied with lightweight hardware and a lightweight price.
Google achieved this low cost in part by ditching the pricier Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) chips inside the older models and going with an ARM-based (Nasdaq: ARMH ) chip from Samsung, the same kind typically found in smartphones and tablets. In this case, we're talking about Samsung's next-generation Exynos 5 chips found inside, the first to market to with ARM Cortex A15 cores that feature significant performance gains.
The search giant began selling the new Chromebook through its Google Play storefront on Monday, and within just one day has sold out of its initial stock. New prospective buyers can only ask for an email update when more become available.
The device is also out of stock at Google's third-party retail partners, so demand for the new Chromebook appears robust. We don't know how many units these orders represent, but they're certainly being snapped up right now.
Picking up where Intel left off
The device resembles Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) MacBook Air, featuring the same screen size and resolution. At a quarter of the price, the Chromebook will certain fall far behind in overall build quality and hardware design, but consumers will be expecting that at a quarter of the price.
Investors may also remember that Intel has been pushing its Ultrabook initiative very aggressively this year, with PC makers launching handfuls of MacBook Air lookalikes. However, this move by Intel was actually more in response to the threat of the iPad and its ARM-based chip rather than the MacBook Air and its Intel chip.
At the beginning of the year, Intel hoped that Ultrabooks would comprise 40% of consumer notebook sales. Earlier this month, researcher IHS iSuppli dropped its 2012 Ultrabook forecast by more than half, from 22 million to 10.3 million. iSuppli analyst Craig Stice had said, "So far, the PC industry has failed to create the kind of buzz and excitement among consumers that is required to propel Ultrabooks into the mainstream. This is especially a problem amid all the hype surrounding media tablets and smartphones."
In that sense, I would classify Intel's Ultrabook push a failure relative to its early ambitions.
At $249, the new Chromebook is a tempting purchase for consumers in the market for either a tablet like the iPad or even a MacBook Air. The Chromebook only has but a fraction of the capabilities of the MacBook Air and it certainly targets a different, lower end of the market, but it could easily suffice for budget-conscious buyers willing to accept less functionality for less cost.
This is a prime example of Google's disruptive nature. It's not doing this to profit on the hardware or operating system, like Intel needs to by selling its chips or Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) does by selling Windows. It's doing this to reinforce the moat surrounding its online services and advertising business, and in doing so represents a threat to incumbent players.
In the grand scheme of things, Google will likely remain a tiny fish in the PC ocean for the foreseeable future, but at the same time it has presented a viable alternative to tablets and more expensive laptops. Well done, Big G. Well done.
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