May 6, 2014 · 3 minutes

The laptop market is about to be flooded with Chromebooks. Intel today announced that its processors will be used in 20 new products built with Google's web-based operating system later this year; Lenovo too announced its own forays into the category; and other manufacturers have started to support the devices as sales of traditional Windows-based PCs continue to fall. Chromebooks are getting a little less weird, and a little more like the netbooks they replaced.

There's no denying the appeal of a cheap laptop that offers complete access to the web without forcing people to break the bank on a full-powered computer or shackle themselves to their smartphones. It seems like there's nothing modern websites can't accomplish, and most people care only about accessing Facebook and maybe email, not editing large video files or making cosmetic magic with Photoshop. But is flooding the Chromebook market going to be good for the category in the long-term?

Probably not. If netbooks taught us anything it's that consumers will purchase cheap laptops if they have to, but they aren't going to be spending enough to justify the release of a few dozen products in just a few months. Then, as soon as consumers are bored with their Chromebooks, they will abandon them and search for other devices. Google is emulating a product category that caught fire faster than its laptop's exploding charger and flamed out almost as quickly.

It would be easy to pin this on the manufacturers building these products, but the blame lies only with Google. The company tried to prove that Chromebooks could become something more than glorified netbooks with the Pixel, a high-end laptop that rivaled similar devices from Apple and other manufacturers, but its software simply couldn't justify its price tag. So instead of updating the software to make it more appealing, Google has allowed it to languish and allowed manufacturers to release products that are modern netbooks in all but name only.

Pando weighs in

On the Chromebook's appeal, and its problems:

If a consumer is operating on a tight budget, refuses or is unable to work with a 7-or 8-inch tablet, can accept that Chrome OS relies on a constant Internet connection for most of its functions, and plans to use the device sans-charging cord in rare circumstances, the Chromebook is the way to go. But that’s a whole lot of “ifs” for a product category that channels the worst of the newly-buried netbook.
On the category's surprising popularity with Amazon customers:
There’s an appeal to Chromebooks. They offer both a simplicity and in some cases an air of rebelliousness that Windows and Mac OS can’t touch. One reason then may be that Amazon’s clientele lends itself to a contrarian, rebellious, or forward-thinking consumer. As long as ecommerce has been around, it’s still not the default for many. So this idea is plausible. But it doesn’t seem like enough to justify the results.

Another possible explanation is that Chromebooks sell better online, rather than in brick-and-mortar retail stores. Best Buy carries multiple Chromebooks, both in its stores and online (although the above mentioned Samsung is currently sold out). I don’t have data available on their sell through there, but I would be surprised if their laptop sales, at least in-store, didn’t better mirror the broader market. On Google's attempt to create a high-end Chromebook with the Pixel:

We won’t know if Pixel will make a difference in the laptop market until it’s had time to woo consumers or die trying. But it’s clear that Google wants this to be a sign of things to come, a sea change for Chrome OS and, to Google’s mind, personal computers. So while some will scoff at the Pixel’s price — Chrome OS is “just a browser,” after all — the same way they scoff at Glass now, it seems to me that we’re watching a new Google emerge right in front of us.

Android is Google’s future. Nexus is Google’s future. Glass is Google’s future. And now, if Google is as committed as it seems to be, Chromebook might just be in its future as well. On the HP Chromebook 11 and its exploding charger:

When I said that the charger was the most interesting aspect of this Chromebook, I did so with the assumption that the rest of the device was unremarkable but would work as expected. Now I know that even though the charger truly is the most notable thing about this infernal laptop, it’s because the rest of the device fails so spectacularly at its modest goals that a faulty charger prone to overheating and explosions is the best goddamn thing found in its box.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]