Is Chrome OS the New Low End?

The Google Chrome story began when Google introduced its new Chrome browser in September 2008. Initially it was Windows only, for XP and later, and Chrome was only for Windows until 2009. It was finally released for Mac OS X and Linux in May 2010.

Browsers, A Short History

top five browsers

Today’s Top Browsers

Chrome was an upstart. Internet Explorer had been around forever (okay, only since August 1995), and Firefox rose from the ashes of Netscape Navigator in September 2002, making it even older (Netscape was first released in December 1994). Starting with Windows 10, Microsoft Edge has replaced Internet Explorer on Windows PCs.

Apple’s Safari browser arrived on the Mac with OS X 10.3 Panther in January 2003 (following a beta for OS X 10.2 Jaguar). In 2007, Apple released Safari 3 for Windows XP and Vista. Safari 5.1.7 was the last version for Windows, and it has been a Mac-only browser ever since.

Netscape had tried to make a go of things as a commercial product, but it was easy for anyone to download and use it without registering. Internet Explorer was free with Windows, and Microsoft also made a free version for the Mac OS, which it discontinued when Apple debuted Safari as its primary OS X browser.

By the mid-2000s, the trend was evident – people didn’t want to pay for browsers, and one-by-one almost every remaining browser became freeware. That’s the world Google entered with Chrome.

Coming out of the blue, Chrome passed Firefox for the #2 spot in late 2011, and it displaced Internet Explorer as the #1 browser in mid 2012. (With the rise of iOS, Safari passed IE to become the #2 browser in early 2015.)

Chrome has a 50% usage share among browsers on PCs and mobile platforms combined, and over 60% of the PC market. It took Google less than four years to become top dog in the browser market!

The Trend at Low End Mac

We have browser data for visitor to Low End Mac going back to April 2010, when Safari was at the top with 37.1% of pages served, Firefox second at 31.6%, Internet Explorer third with 17.5%, Chrome holding fourth at 8.9%, Opera trailing at 1.6%, and all other browsers combined accounting for less than 2.9%. Yes, this is biased toward Apple, as we are  Mac website and these numbers include mobile devices, so it’s Macs plus iPhones and iPads.

Microsoft’s glory days were behind it, and Firefox had already peaked at that point. Safari was still ascending, reaching its peak of 49.5% in August 2013.

Based on our own site data, Chrome surpassed Internet Explorer in March 2011, and in June 2012 it outpaced Firefox. It has consistently been #2 among Low End Mac readers since then.

So far in August 2016, Safari holds the lead at 39.4% with Chrome a close second at 37.7%. Firefox continues to hold third place at 14.3%, and Microsoft’s two browsers, Internet Explorer and Edge, together account for just 4.7%, followed by Opera at 0.8%.

Chrome OS

In the world of operating systems, Microsoft Windows is the undisputed champion among desktops and notebooks. Based on July 2016 StatCounter data (per Wikipedia), Mac OS X accounts for 9.6% of desktops and laptops on the Internet. That’s all versions of Mac OS X. Linux, in all its versions except for Android and Chrome, has 1.5% usage share, while Chrome OS barely registers at 0.35%.

By way of comparison, 5.2% of computers are not reporting their operating system. That leaves roughly 83.5% of personal computers on the Internet using some version of Windows. If we assign 83.5% of that unknown 5.2% to Windows, which seems a safe bet, Windows accounts for over 87.5% on desktops and laptops.

This is the reality that Chrome OS is facing. Windows counts for say 88% among PC users, with macOS at a bit under 10%. That leaves 2% of the market for Linux and Chrome OS to divide between them.

Mobile Devices

Microsoft completely dominates the PC market, but it’s barely a player in the smartphone market, where Android dominates usage stats. Again based on StatCounter data, this time from March 2015, Android had 61.9% of the smartphone market, Apple 22.6%, and Windows just 2.3%.

Non-PC Tablets

Looking at usage stat (StatCounter, July 2015), iPads hold the #1 spot at 65.5%, with Android at the 31.4% mark. Linux (not counting Android) has 2.6% of the tablet market, with Windows RT at 0.8%. Bear in mind that x86-based Surface tablets count as PCs, because they are using the same Windows versions as desktops and notebooks.

The Big OS Picture

We’re only looking at certain aspects of the story. In the PC world, x86-class CPUs totally dominate, while the mobile world is dominated by ARM processors. In the desktop and laptop market, Windows totally dominates – while Apple dominates tablets and Android smartphones.

Who Is Chome OS For?

Among computers retailing for over $1,000, Apple owns the market. Windows is mostly used on lower-cost computers. That’s part of the reason Apple has been able to offer free macOS upgrades for almost four years now – they’ve made their money selling the computer. Microsoft, on the other hand, doesn’t make money selling PCs, it makes its money from selling Windows and software.

It’s hard to find firm prices, as Microsoft negotiates individually with PC manufacturers, but $80-100 was what they would pay to install Windows and Office on new PCs. Maybe $20-30 of that for Windows?

That has a small impact when PCs sell for $500, a bigger impact when they retail for $300, and pretty much destroys the idea of a current PC selling for under $200 with a full Windows license.

This is often called the “Windows tax” by Linux users, and for a while some manufacturers actually sold Windows-free PCs – with almost no financial savings to their customers because their Microsoft contract still required them to pay for Windows even if it wasn’t installed. But it was a nice dream.

Chrome OS is aimed at the low end of the personal computing market. It’s designed so most of your work is done online using your browser with your documents stored on Google’s servers. That reduces the amount of storage a Chrome computer needs. And since 3D gaming isn’t part of the target market, manufacturers don’t need to use expensive GPUs to provide a good user experience.

One Market: Two-and-a-Half Solutions

ChromeBooks

The place you’re most likely to find Chrome OS notebooks is the classroom. They are dirt cheap to acquire, and they are built by first tier manufacturers. Shop around, and you can probably find a decent Chromebook for $150.

OLPC

There’s another solution aimed at the classroom, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The goal of this group when it was founded in 2005 was to bring the cost of laptop computing down to $100 per device when purchased in quantity. (For the record, $1,500 for a laptop was common in 2014.)

The OLPC XO was a rugged, low power computer with Linux and mesh networking to share an internet connection. The device went into production in late 2007 with a 433 MHz CPU, 256 MB of system memory, 1 GB of flash memory for file storage, a 7.5″ display, and a built-in VGA video camera.

Classmate PCs

At one point, Intel was part of OLPC, but the company decided to develop its own Classmate PCs for the education market. Intel doesn’t manufacture Classmate hardware; it licenses its designs to manufacturers. It may be sold with Windows or with Linux, to keep costs down.

Six of One?

It’s difficult to compare these three different solutions, but where OLPC and Classmate PCs specifically address the education market, the Chromebook has entered the education market by being a general purpose device that is also a reasonably priced solution for schools.

The biggest advantage of the Chromebook is that it is a competitive market. You can get small Chromebooks or large ones, inexpensive ones or relatively high-end ones. You are not tied to a reference design or a single product, as with Classmate PCs and OLPC.

What Happens in Five Years?

The first Chromebooks were introduced in June 2011, just over five years ago, and there has been some discussion lately about Google’s promise to support devices for five full years. Period. After that, Google would be free to not provide any additional support.

Is that a bad thing? Ever the contrarian, I am using Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard daily on a Mid 2007 Mac mini. That’s an operating system introduced in August 2009 – seven years ago – on a computer introduced two years before that. A bit more generously, its an operating system that was last updated over five years ago (July 25, 2011) on a computer that was discontinued in March 2009 – almost 7-1/2 years ago.

Sure, I’d love something newer and faster and flashier, but this 2.0 GHz dual-core machine is sufficiently powerful, especially with the maximum amount of system memory (3 GB) installed and an SSD. A quad-core CPU would be nice. A faster Core 2 Duo or Core i CPU would be nice. Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 would be nice. A machine that supports more system memory would be nice. But it suffices.

A lot of people still use Windows XP and Vista. A lot of low-end Mac users with Core Duo and Core 2 Duo hardware choose to stick with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard for a few reasons:

  1. It was the first version of Mac OS X optimized for Intel CPUs. No more PowerPC hardware support.
  2. It was the last version of Mac OS X with Rosetta, which lets us continue to run our old PowerPC software on modern Intel-based Macs.
  3. It isn’t OS X 10.7 Lion, which began the trend of iOSification of the Mac OS (or, with Sierra just around the corner, perhaps I should say macOS instead). Without all the new features introduced with Lion, we can run more efficiently on the more limited hardware typical of these aging Macs.

Through the Mac’s history, there have been sweet spots of hardware and OS synchronicity that just have a great balance. System 6 on 68000-based Macs. System 7.5.5 or 7.6.1 on 68030-based Macs. Mac OS 8.1 for 68040-based models. Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger on G3-G5 Macs, especially for those who still needed Classic Mode. OS X 10.5 Leopard on faster G4 and G5 machines for those who didn’t need Classic Mode. And Snow Leopard for the first several generations of Intel x86 Macs.

If you wonder whether a five-year-old Chromebook with no further OS support from Google is a bad thing, take your lesson from a world full of Windows XP users and the community of low-end Mac users. At five years old, we’re just breaking in our hardware, as long as we avoided the cheap junky stuff.

What Does the Future Hold for Chrome OS?

I have no idea what the future holds for Chrome OS. Sometimes great technologies die off because the market just isn’t big enough or the company completely changes direction. Remember how messy the Apple II world was at the end? Or how Amiga and Atari ST showed so much promise but never quite got the traction they needed to continue in play? How schools were finally moving to Apple’s Newton eMate 300 when Steve Jobs decided Apple needed to focus exclusively on the Mac to survive? How the PC industry invested so much into netbooks, only to have Apple show them a better way with the MacBook Air?

Windows is not going away, even if Microsoft has to spend a year giving away the latest version to give it traction. Macs are not going away. While the PC market is in decline, Apple sold 19.3 million Macs over the past year (down slightly from a peak of 20.6 million one year ago).

Part of the “problem” with desktop and notebook sales is that people already have enough power. Part of the problem is that people are finding out how much they can do on a tablet or smartphone. And part of the problem is the ongoing economic malaise that has people tightening their belts and waiting to upgrade a bit longer.

Chrome OS has the potential to become a significant player in the business market. At my last workplace, we either used ancient PCs to clock in and out, or we used a Chromebook. They both did a great job connecting to the company network and the Internet and the outside firm that handled our time cards. Most of the time we had reliable WiFi access to the Internet in all of our buildings, and when we had problems, the WiFi link between buildings was usually the culprit, so ethernet vs. WiFi wasn’t even an issue.

Chromebooks are today’s thin clients. Connect to company servers and the Internet. Store your work on the company servers or Google’s cloud services. Pick the Chromebook that best suits each user’s needs based on size and processing power. (Don’t forget the iMacs in the design department, one area where Chromebooks and Windows PCs take a back seat.)

Chrome OS is a great way for cutting costs on hardware, cutting support costs, and avoiding malware.

Conclusion

I love my Macs. I love computing. I cut my teeth on 5.25″ floppy disks and cassette tapes for data storage, black-and-white displays, and a lot of really nice keyboards. Data storage has grown in capacity and speed while dropping in cost. Displays are more affordable than ever. And you can still buy a good keyboard if you’re not impressed with the one that came with your computer.

I’m bullish on Chrome OS. Google promises to support it for at least five more years. I think it’s going to eat away at the low-end notebook market, which could eventually make it a significant player.

Whatever happens, we’re expanding our coverage at Low End Mac to include the Chrome OS and the hardware that runs it.

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