Why the Chromebook Pixel is a Mistake

Published on Author Eli Fennell


Ever since Google launched their $1300 Pixel Chromebook, I’ve gone back and forth on whether I think it was just a bad idea, or a really bad idea.
Yes, some people will want a Pixel: power Chrome developers, a lot of Google employees, and some organizations that have their workflow and storage in the cloud and want the premium cloud experience and can see the value proposition in 1TB of Google Drive free for three years.
These aren’t large groups, though.  I’d be surprised if Google moves more than fifty thousand Pixels.  If the Pixel somehow outsells the Surface Pro, then Steve Ballmer needs to retire, because there’s no way I’d recommend the former over the latter.
It isn’t just numbers, though, that make me think the Pixel is a terrible idea.  It’s because Google may well have squandered the best moment to strike against Microsoft.
Surface sales are weak, Windows 8 sales are weak, and the opportunity may at long last exist for a new player to break the market wide open.  The current Chromebook lineup, especially the Samsung ARM Chromebook and Acer Chromebook, have made some progress with public awareness of the brand.
Trusting OEM’s with your brand, though, has become a fool’s game, and even Microsoft (who long allowed OEM’s and retailers to carry most of the marketing load) recognizes that.  Microsoft, to their credit, launched a media blitz for Surface and Windows 8.  Google has done no such thing for Chrome, apart from internet videos and a television commercial with dancing babies.
Despite this, Windows 8 isn’t selling well.  People aren’t buying as many PC’s, Microsoft’s brand perception has declined, and Windows 8 is a radical adjustment for users, too radical for many.
Meanwhile Chromebooks are doing surprisingly well for what, only two years ago, was a crazy concept, with both Acer and Samsung reaping benefits and other companies jumping into the mix like Lenovo and HP.  Exactly how much market share they hold we don’t know, and probably not as much as desktop Linux, but growing fast enough to encourage a number of major OEM’s to make their own.
Google had a chance to bring out a Google-branded flagship Chromebook that could have been priced just slightly premium, leaving room for OEM partners to underprice them, and then blitz the media about Chrome OS in the coming months.
An $800 Pixel, for example, would still have cost hundreds more than the nearest Chrome device, and possibly stolen sales away from the more expensive Surface Pro.  It might even have been a no-brainer for deployment in a number of organizations, where the Chrome concept is intriguing  but so is touchscreen support.
By even releasing a $1300 Chromebook, Google has seemingly boxed themselves in.  They can’t hope to move large volumes at that price, but it would look like an admission of failure to release a significantly cheaper version now, unless it was co-branded with a partner, which would somewhat dilute the brand.
Nonetheless if I were Google, I’d be well underway developing a range of touchscreen Chromebooks at different price points either under my own brand, or with OEM partners (or some combination).  Pixel proves Chrome can support touch and be made with premium specs and design, now is the time to prove Chrome is an OS for people and organizations of all budgets.
Building brand awareness of a new type of PC in the shadow of the Windows brand isn’t easy, just ask Apple, or the Linux community.  The Chrome browser may be well known, but that doesn’t mean the Chrome OS is or that Chromebooks are.
The fact that I still have to explain the concept to most people the first time I mention it to them suggests that Google still has a lot of work to do in this area.  At the same time, the fact that most people are intrigued by the idea when they hear about it suggests there is room for a browser-centric OS to be a consumer hit.

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.