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Chromebooks Up, Macs Down?

The news might have come as a shot across the bow. In the last quarter, notebooks featuring Google’s Chrome OS — or Chromebooks — outsold Macs, but not everywhere. But this is certainly being touted by Google fans as evidence that the Mac is on the way out, that Chromebooks are taking over.

But it’s not that easy.

Now just to put things in perspective, this data is based strictly on U.S. sales as estimated by IDC. I will not dispute the numbers, although IDC is notorious for underestimating Apple’s sales. Nonetheless, it’s true that Mac sales were off some worldwide in the March quarter, so this might give the report some level of credence.

Thus, I’ll assume it’s true for the sake of argument.

Overall, Chromebooks aren’t necessarily taking sales away from Apple, although some of that may be true in one market segment. Don’t forget that Google’s Chrome OS is basically a browser and web apps. For many people, that might be enough, particularly if you use Google products and services. Indeed, with a decent online connection, it might be perfectly satisfactory, as is the fact that Chromebooks can be had for as little as $150. So if you want a cheap notebook computer, with entry-level parts and the rudiments of an OS that isn’t from Microsoft, it might be a perfectly serviceable solution. That ought to give companies who depend on the sales of PC notebooks conniptions, because they have been racing to the bottom for years. The Chrome OS is free, but so is Windows for real cheap gear with very small displays.

However, there is one market where the Chromebook has taken control, and that’s the K-12 education market in the U.S. A main reason is price. Cash-starved school systems may not be able to justify spending upwards of $849 for a MacBook Air. Even thought the price will be lower for volume sales, it won’t be that much lower.

So despite all the extra tools Apple offers for the education market, and its past history, it all comes down to money. School systems in the U.S. have really been hit hard since the 2007 recession, and the moves by local school boards to cut frills as much as possible. I suppose a proper notebook computer is a frill.

That said, a Chromebook is a pretty simple affair, with very little software, and, I suppose, easy control on the part of system admins because of the app limitation. These boxes can’t do much beyond the basics. Students can’t waste time with high-powered games and such, since the OS and the hardware wouldn’t support such pursuits even if students could install regular apps, which they can’t.

So faced with being able to hand students a cheap notebook computer or no notebook computer, you can see what decision is being made. Still, I cannot see where any company can make a profit from a PC selling for $150-250. Apple’s profit margins on any Mac sale are higher than that.

Now with the promised ability to run Android apps, it’s quite possible there will be more Chromebook sales in the consumer market. Right now, they haven’t done so well, so this apparent conquest of a single market shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the future. On the other hand, students who are exposed to specific products in school are apt to insist that their parents buy them the same gear to use at home.

So I’ve heard of one Mac author whose kids wanted Chromebooks for that very reason. So that could prove a harbinger of the future for Google. As more and more students become accustomed to Chromebooks, they would be apt to choose one for themselves.

As personal computers go, however, they are quite limited, and the things our kids do may not work so well beyond Facebook and Twitter. Being able to run Android apps, if they could be modified to work reasonably well on a notebook computer with a trackpad, would certainly help.

That said, I can see where casual users might just adapt to a Chromebook. If you’re accustomed to the Chrome browser and Gmail, and spend most of your time checking your favorite sites and catching up on messages from your friends, I suppose you could make a good case for a minimalist notebook and operating system.

But with minimal profits, I can’t imagine what PC makers are expecting. Yes, there are more expensive Chromebooks with more powerful hardware, but the most expensive model I located during a casual check at Best Buy listed for $450, a mainstream but still pretty cheap price for a notebook. A customer who becomes accustomed to Google’s OS is hardly going to trade up to Windows. Even then, they might still choose a cheap box with minimal profits to the manufacturer.

So does this mean Apple has nothing to fear? Well, a lost sale is a lost sale, and if they are losing ground in the educational market to cheap stuff, compromises may have to be made. Perhaps more aggressive pricing, and building a more powerful case for Macs in education might help. Some day states and cities in the U.S. might decide to be more generous in budgeting for education and thus more willing to spend more for personal computers that do more. But that’s little more than a pipe dream.