When netbooks were first launched in late 2008, they were billed as clamshell devices meant to access the internet. About a decade earlier, these devices were also referred to as internet appliances. These netbooks were much less expensive than notebooks at the time, partly because of their limited functionality and partly because of their sleek size (eliminating components such as optical drives). The concept of these devices quickly devolved as consumers focused on price. Brands seized the growing demand opportunity and slapped together miniature notebooks using what they had at the time: notebook components.
What the industry was left with was inexpensive small notebooks, not internet access devices, but “net” books. Many research firms, including DisplaySearch, took to calling netbooks “mini-notes” because they were recognized as miniature notebooks. Research firms took a lot of heat from PC brands, component makers, and others who were worried that if these inexpensive mini-notes were thought of as notebooks, they would lead to lower average selling prices of notebooks. That is what ended up happening. Now the mini-note category is shrinking as brands move away from the modest margins of mini-notes to tablet PCs, while the need and opportunity for devices specialized for internet access remains.
Enter the Chromebook, a clamshell device whose main objective is to access the internet, with some versions coming in at mini-note prices; a case in point is the Acer AC700-1099, selling for $349. Some have said that Chromebooks will be doomed from the start because of the impression that they need a mobile broadband connection to be of any use. I’d say that’s a marketing error that needs to be corrected: Chromebooks can use WiFi to connect to the internet and can be useful anywhere there is a hot spot. The goal is convenience, not productivity. For consumers looking for an instant-on device with a long battery life and sleek design, just for connecting to the web for email and accessing digital media, Chromebooks will be of interest.
Chromebooks have recently started selling, so it’s too early to judge the market’s reaction. However, informal indications seem to point to some traction. As of this writing, the Acer Chromebook was ranked fourth on Amazon.com’s bestsellers list for laptops, and even the more expensive Samsung Series 5 in silver with WiFi was eighth, while the 3G versions in white and silver were ninth and eleventh, respectively.