While the machines aren't overly powerful or particularly versatile, they are inexpensive. And when it comes to dealing with schools, which often have tight budgets, being good enough and cheap is what it takes to get a deal done.
In addition to being inexpensive are the limitations of Chromebooks compared with machines running Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows or ones powered by Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS. The Google machines work with Web-based apps and offer little in the way of functionality when not connected.
This issue may be a weakness for business or even home users, but for schools, it makes Chromebooks easier to monitor and control versus traditional PCs, Macs, or iPads. Overall, this combination of price and the right mix of functionality for school use has helped Google quickly build up a shocking market share in schools.
How much market share does Google have?
New research from FutureSource Consulting shows that Chromebooks now make up more than half the devices in U.S. classrooms, CNBC reported. That's up from less than 1% in 2012.
"While it was clear that Chromebooks had made progress in education, this news is, frankly, shocking," Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder told the financial-news channel. "Chromebooks made incredibly quick inroads in just a couple of years, leaping over Microsoft and Apple with seeming ease."
Google also has some market share with devices running its Android OS, giving it 53% K-12 market share as of the third quarter, according to FutureSource.
That's bad news for Apple, which has dropped from 52% to 24% according to the research, and nearly as bad for Microsoft, which has fallen from 43% to 24%.
This has some long-term implications
While the school market is a very small piece of the overall amount of computing devices sold, Google is gaining an edge over Microsoft and Apple. If kids get exposed to using Chromebooks at school, it's logical that they'll be open to using them at home.
Parents will appreciate the price tag, as well as the fact that the simpler machines have fewer things that can go wrong. If students in K-12 become accustomed to the low-feature laptops, that could become the norm in higher education and in the homes and offices Generation Chromebook grows up in.
That's an extreme scenario, but Apple built a portion of its initial Mac audience on the fact that kids used the pricey machines in schools. In recent years, the same has been true with iPads.
Microsoft, ironically enough, took school share from Apple by offering cheaper Windows computers. Without that pricing edge, it's going to struggle to win over school systems.
How will this play out?
Chromebooks are inferior to Macs, iPads, and even the cheapest, lowest-function Windows machines. That won't matter, because schools will almost always go with the cheapest option that at least sort of gets the job done.
Microsoft has fired back with cheaper Windows tablets, but those machines need cloud access to Office to be as useful as Chromebooks. The Windows maker does offer the service free for students and educators in some cases, but it hasn't built its entire system around cloud software that doesn't cost a thing, while Google has.
Apple, on the other hand, has no answer. It's a more expensive solution, and it always has been. There's no reason to believe the company will make big changes to go after market share, as it would undercut its value as a top-tier solution.
Google is winning, and that's not just good for the company now; it also should slowly help it build a non-education audience for Chromebook. The low-end devices may not replace fuller-featured laptops in business or even higher education, but they will become much more acceptable second machines, travel devices, and low-cost "this is what I can afford" answers.
Building popularity with kids first doesn't always work. If it did, soccer would be bigger than football in the U.S., but there's no reason to believe it won't be successful here. Google has found a niche in which its devices make sense, and that could help it build Chromebook into a real business.