Today, Google is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Chromebook. The timing may not be quite correct depending on where you’re counting from, but Google’s Chrome OS hardware platform has been around for at least the last decade. And, in the face of early criticism, it’s carved out quite a niche for itself. Between the exploding education sales and our pandemic work-from-home shift, Chromebooks are one of the fastest-growing markets — one in five computers sold in the US is a Chromebook, according to Google. And in the middle of this Chrome OS-powered gold rush, it’s easy to forget how humbly things began.
Just feels like yesterday when was working on the first chromebook #cr48. Might be time to update it to the latest version of the Chrome:) Happy 10th birthday, Chrome OS! Exciting next decade ahead! pic.twitter.com/BMSY2TMU9F
— Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai) March 9, 2021
While Google is celebrating the launch of the first Chromebooks in 2011, many of us likely remember the real first Chromebook: the 2010 CR-48. Google never sold them; only a privileged few managed to get their hands on them courtesy of a public test. We were lucky enough to get a unit here at Android Police, and I even snagged one for myself at the time — long before my tech blogging days. At the time, the Chromebook “pilot program” was a little rough around the edges, with hardware sporting a single-core Atom CPU and mediocre 12.1″ display, making it a netbook in all but name.
Performance may have left something to be desired, but even early on, I was stunningly impressed with the software’s simplicity. It was on just about instantly when you opened it up, and all you really had was a browser. Many criticized that as a disadvantage, and some even pointed out that we couldn’t rely on the availability of an internet connection — how naive we were back then.
A much younger Sundar Pichai talking about those newfangled Chromebooks at Google I/O 2021.
In 2011, the first Chromebooks for paying customers were announced at Google I/O: the Samsung Series 5 and the Acer AC700. These early efforts weren’t too highly regarded, and while there were some genuine complaints about things like hardware, our attitudes also just weren’t ready yet, and Google’s software vision was there, but still incomplete in some ways. More fundamentally, though, the idea of doing everything in such a simplistic environment didn’t really make sense to everyone yet, and many web-centric workflows weren’t worked out (yet).
But over the years, both hardware and the internet as a whole improved. Chromebooks were among the first devices to pick up the now almost universal USB Type-C port, and the hardware inside the latest 2020 models is far from that puttering single-core Atom. Most of the services consumers use have also transitioned to the web, and for those that haven’t, there’s probably an Android app — and Chromebooks can run those now.
Even today, while some still joke about PWAs, the state of the internet as a whole is very different. The vast majority of us can actually live in “just” a browser. Plenty of desktop applications we rely on today are nothing more than a browser in a frame to look like something else. We’ve come full-circle: Chromebooks were criticized as a glorified browser, but many PC applications now are nothing but a glorified website.
Google’s early bet on an internet-centric platform wasn’t foolish; it was prophetic.
Now it’s the fastest-growing computer category
Ten years later and most of the early complaints surrounding Chromebooks have been left behind, if not proven to be outright advantages. Between the platform’s simplicity and huge price advantage, Chromebooks are taking flight. It’s easy to see why: Most of what we do today happens in a browser online, and a Chromebook is the least expensive way to do that.
Unlike a PC, you can’t break it by playing around with settings or accidentally deleting something, they’re less susceptible to malware than competing platforms, and they push your money a whole lot further than a Windows computer or Mac. Google also offers regular, guaranteed updates that cover the whole system, compared to Microsoft’s OS-only update promise and PC vendors that are apt to abandon hardware in just a few years.
In just five years, they outsold even Apple’s computers, and they’re now one of the fastest-growing computer markets. Even AMD, who has no direct skin in the game as a chip maker for PCs and Chromebooks alike, told us that the market is a big priority for them going forward after seeing 400%+ growth in some metrics year-over-year, and that’s ignoring the standalone gains it’s seen in the education market — 40 million students used them last year.
That’s not to say that everything has gone perfectly. While Chrome OS has picked up plenty of useful changes in recent years, from big features like Virtual Desks support and Lacros to even small stuff like new themes, it’s had a rough trip. Pre-pandemic, some thought that the platform had begun to stall out, and Google even gave up on making its own Chrome OS tablets — probably because its Pixel Slate wasn’t that great, though later updates and other company efforts were better.
We’ve come a long way from the early days of Chromebook criticism and even Microsoft’s weird war against Chrome OS. Remember back in 2013 when Microsoft felt so existentially threatened by Google’s advances, shaken to its declining-PC-market core by the advance of Chromebooks, that it made those weird Scroogled ads?
Times have changed, and while Chromebooks still don’t fit every workflow, for the vast majority of us, they do. More technical folk that need specific tools are still going to run into trouble — people like video editors, for example, simply can’t do their jobs in a browser — but for average folks using a PC as a content consumption device, simple work- or school-from-home machine, or coffee table Facebook connection, a Chromebook is the go-to.
Here’s to the next ten years of Chromebooks.