Piece Of The Puzzle : Chromebooks In The U.S. And The Rest Of The World

I just found a very interesting pair of reports by Puneet Sikka on Market Realist/Yahoo Finance.

  1. “Why Apple Devices are Losing Share to Chromebooks in Schools”
  2. “Microsoft Gained Presence in the International Education Market”

The former article describes how Chromebooks are now more than half of all devices sold to US Schools (3Q15). The latter one tells us that in the international market, Chromebooks only have a 3% market share. In particular, it tells us that Chromebooks have a tiny 1% share in Brazil, Mexico and India, all markets where cheap Google/Android phones are doing exceedingly well due to high price sensitivity.

In fact, if you look at the chart below, it clearly shows that Chromebook market share is much higher for developed countries than for emerging ones. Although one might presume that cheaper Chromebooks are more suited for low-income countries, the reality is that the inverse is true; low-income countries prefer Windows.

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The reason is clearly stated in the article;

The main issue with these countries is that they do not have the required broadband infrastructure to support the cloud-based storage requirements of Chromebooks.

We often only look at the flashy devices that we use, made by the most powerful tech companies in the world; Google, Microsoft and Apple. We often forget that to make these devices work, we need a lot of infrastructure. We also forget that WiFi can be very, very expensive when you want to deploy a network capable of handling hundreds of simultaneous connections. We forget the infrastructure because unless you have to dealt with it directly, it is invisible.

This is something to keep in mind.

  1. Google exists only because broadband Internet access is cheap. Its business model and its data collection relies on the infrastructure of vast network of Internet equipment that most people in developed countries now take for granted.
  2. Amazon exists only because of a highly developed and inexpensive network of deliveries to your doorstep. This was not common 30 years ago in Japan, and I assume, most other countries.
  3. Microsoft and Apple built their businesses before this infrastructure. They have business models that work without it.

One could ask the question; what infrastructure enables Uber? What recent changes have occurred to it? Or they could ask, what infrastructure enables self-driving cars? Then they should look at other countries to see if the infrastructure is there.

I strongly believe that to understand the underlying current flowing through technology and innovation, one has to understand the gradual changes of the infrastructure. The tech that we see are often just the rocks that are being pushed downstream. The Chromebook example is a strong reminder of what we should keep our eyes on.

Chromebooks and iPads in U.S. Schools

A recent blog on the New York Times described how Chromebooks are gaining in the U.S. education market (K-12). I have wrote quite a lot about Chromebooks on this block, and this article tells us that progress has been made on the part of Google. Of course, the market that is described in this article is quite small with only 13.2 million units annually, in comparison to over 300 million PC units (excluding tablets) sold worldwide, and as far as I know, Chromebook’s success in K-12 education has not expanded to other markets (including international). Nonetheless, this is good news for Google.

The comments section is also very good, with some specific examples of why certain schools decided to purchase Chromebooks instead of iPads or Windows PCs.

My broad-view understanding is that Chromebooks are serving pre-existing needs that are mainly administrative by nature, and are best understood as sustaining or efficiency innovations. The blog post and the associated comments strengthen my view.

The real problem as I see, it is that there is a huge amount of potential in bringing technology to the classroom, but there is still too little investment in terms of hardware, software, curriculum and teaching skills. Sustaining and efficiency innovations won’t take us there. They don’t provide administration with good reasons to invest more; they only give us reasons to spend less. We need empowering innovations (such as which the iPad promises to bring) for that.

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Chromebooks in Europe

Samsung recently announced that they will exit their laptop business in Europe. This includes both Chromebooks and PCs running Windows.

Of course, you don’t usually exit businesses that are doing well. Samsung gave the following reason in their statement;

We quickly adapt to market needs and demands. In Europe, we will be discontinuing sales of laptops including Chromebooks for now. This is specific to the region — and is not necessarily reflective of conditions in other markets. We will continue to thoroughly evaluate market conditions and will make further adjustments to maintain our competitiveness in emerging PC categories.

Essentially they are saying that their laptops are not selling well and Europe, and it doesn’t make sense for them to continue that business there.

This would be understandable if this was driven mainly by lackluster sales of Windows PCs. IDC has predicted that worldwide PC shipments will decrease by -3.7% in 2014. However, Samsung in not strong in this segment. The segment where Samsung is strong is in Chromebooks. Although Acer has recently been reported to have edged out Samsung, it is still a strong second with an estimated 24% market share of Chromebooks shipments. This segment, unlike the Windows PC segment, is predicted to show very strong growth in 2014. The fact that Samsung is exiting the European market not only for Windows PCs, but also for Chromebooks, suggests that at least in Europe, Chromebooks may be struggling.

Most news coverage on Chromebooks come from the US and as usual, both Google and Samsung are very quite about actual sales. Most analysts tell us that Chromebooks are selling well in a single niche market, that is US education, and hence it is not a surprise that Chromebooks do not yet have much traction in Europe. However, they seem to be a bit more optimistic on the prospects long term.

However, the news from Samsung suggest that they do not expect Chromebooks to catch on in Europe, at least not in the mid-term (3-5 years), which would be the minimal window for which such a drastic action would make sense.

Of course, this makes a lot of sense. Although I do not have any figures, I strongly suspect that the amount of money that US schools spend on technology vastly outweighs what other countries, even developed nations spend. Hence it is very unlikely that the single niche that Chromebooks has found success in (US K-12 education) even exists outside the US.

Are Chromebooks Losing Market Share in the Sub-$300 Notebook Segment?

Yesterday I wrote about an NPD report that came out for back-to-school PC sales in 2014.

In that report, Chromebook sales were reported to account for 18 percent of all sales of notebooks under $300.

This sounds like good news if you don’t remember what NPD was telling us a year ago. Stephen Baker, NPD’s Vice President of Industry Analysis for Consumer Technology, said the following;

In the last eight months Chromebooks have snagged 20 percent to 25 percent of the U.S. market for laptops that cost less than $300.

If Chromebooks sales have truly fallen from 20-25% market share to 18% market share in the sub-$300 laptop segment, that’s pretty bad news for them. Not that it’s particularly good news for Microsoft either.

Back-to-School PC Sales 2014

NPD published their report for US consumer retail PC sales during the 10 week back-to-school period yesterday.

スクリーンショット 2014 09 25 8 07 49

U.S. consumer retail PC sales grew almost 3 percent during the 10 week Back-to-School period (week of July 4th through Labor Day week) after declining by 2.5 percent in the previous year.

So it seems like PC sales aren’t falling too badly and have actually risen a bit. Mac sales are continuing to be quite strong. Chrome OS has made some gains but not nearly as impressive as compared to 2012-13.

As I have repeatedly said in this blog, what I find interesting is how Microsoft is retaliating to Chromebooks.

Chromebook sales were up 32 percent in 2014 and accounted for more than 5 percent of notebook sales, and 18 percent of all sales of notebooks under $300. Windows notebook ASPs fell over the last three weeks to just $441, which was 8 percent lower than last year, but the price cuts lifted units by 4 percent. Entry-level Windows Notebooks priced under $300 increased by 37 percent as prices dropped from $271 to $242. 2-in-One Windows devices accounted for 13 percent of Windows sales as volume increased 6x over 2013.

What we see is that low-cost Windows notebooks that are price-competitive with Chromebooks are increasing sales in line with the rise in Chromebook sales (37 percent vs. 32 percent). Hence it appears that although Chromebooks sales are up 32 percent, the market share of Chromebooks within the notebooks-under-$300 segment is not increasing. What is happening is that the notebooks-under-$300 segment expanded 30%, and both Chrome OS and Windows machines increased their sales at the same rate within this segment.

Simply put, Chromebooks are not gaining market share relative to Windows notebooks in the sub-$300 segment. What’s happening is that the sub-$300 segment is rising 30%.

Within this segment, Chromebooks have 18% market share whereas Windows has the remainder. To eventually win over Windows, Chromebooks has to be growing much more rapidly. The possibility that Chromebook share is not rising at all in this segment is a huge red flag.

Looking at the big picture, Microsoft has simply made the typical response that an incumbent would make when faced with low-end disruption. Microsoft’s software business is very much fixed-cost, and hence they tend to fiercely guard market share at the expense of margins. They have also made similar responses in the past.

Nothing new here, but still interesting to see this play out according to theory.

Chromebooks in Schools

It seems that Chromebooks are quite popular with schools.

I’ve covered this topic before and the story hasn’t changed from then.

What continues to be interesting is that Chromebooks appeal is not necessarily to the end-users, but to the “orifices”. The TechCrunch article explains;

A lot of schools were sold on iPads right after those became available and students probably still prefer them over Chromebooks, but they are relatively expensive compared to Chromebooks and harder to manage. Google also offers admins easy ways to manage large Chromebook deployments from a single console while Apple is still catching up when it comes to this.

Basically, Chromebooks are sometimes preferred over iPads because the hardware costs and the school IT administration costs are cheaper. And the reason they are easy to administer is because there is less that you can do with them.

I see Chromebooks as the equivalent of cash-registers.

Not a very sexy topic.

Microsoft Now Officially Weeding Out Chromebooks with Price Assault

I’ve been writing quite a lot on this blog about Chromebooks. This is because it is a case study into what qualifies for a disruptive innovation and what does not. This story also tells us that corporate history is one yardstick we can use to determine whether or not the incumbent will address the threat of disruption head-on, or whether they will flee up-market.

My position which dates back to January 2013, is that Chromebooks will follow the fate of Netbooks. In fact, since the sales of Chromebooks are significantly lower than peak Netbooks, it will likely end as a dud that only the tech industry showed any interest about.

The thinking was very simple, and all I did was say that;

This time, if Microsoft decides to fight back, they would start providing Windows 8 cheaply to low-spec models like the Acer. They would also add free SkyDrive capacity. It is also likely that they would include free Office 365 to compete with Google Docs.

Microsoft has now officially started to do this.

Microsoft COO, Kevin Turner is cited as saying;

“We are going to participate at the low-end. We’ve got a great value proposition against Chromebooks, we are not ceding the market to anyone.”

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Microsoft is not invincible and there is no guarantee that fighting Chromebooks head-on will be net positive for Microsoft. It is possible that the low-end Windows devices will cannibalize Windows revenue without generating new revenue from Office 365, etc. What we do know however is that Microsoft’s corporate culture has repeatedly addressed low-end disruption head-on. It will undercut low-end disruptors if they ever gain a foothold.

This is simply a case of Microsoft doing what it has always done once again.

Peak Netbook vs. Current Chromebook

I thought it would be interesting to note the peak sales of Netbooks compared to the current sales of Chromebooks.

I don’t have a very good source for peak sales of Netbooks but I think it is 35 million units in 2010. And that was achieved in a mere three years after the first Netbook was introduced (late 2007).

As for Chromebooks, IDC estimates that 2.5 million Chromebook units were sold in 2013. Chromebooks were introduced in June 2011. They have also been with us for nearly three years.

So the real question is not whether Chromebooks will follow the same fate as Netbooks. It is whether Chromebooks will ever be as successful as Netbooks.

Chromebook = Netbook revisited

Almost a year and a half ago, I stated (in Japanese) that it is plainly obvious that Chromebooks will follow the fate of Netbooks.

I outlined how Microsoft would respond if they ever perceived Chromebooks to be a threat.

したがって今回は、もしMicrosoftが反撃を開始するとすれば、Acerなどの低スペックモデルに割安でWindows 8を供給し、そしてSkyDriveの無料使用分を追加する形で反撃することが十分に予想されます。Google Docsの対抗製品であるWindows 365の無料使用分を付ける可能性もあります。

This time, if Microsoft decides to fight back, they would start providing Windows 8 cheaply to low-spec models like the Acer. They would also add free SkyDrive capacity. It is also likely that they would include free Office 365 to compete with Google Docs.

That seems to be exactly what Microsoft has started to do with Windows Bing. Computer makers will start announcing PCs shortly so we should see how these will be priced. I expect prices to be very similar to Chromebook prices.

So far so good.

We can now sit back and wait for the next chapter:
“Interest in Chromebooks wane.”

Update

It is interesting to note that since Microsoft now has a cloud-based subscription revenue model in Office 365, it will be more willing to reduce the cost of Windows. According to this report, Windows 8.1 usually costs $50 per license but Microsoft is offering it for $15 on low-cost devices.

Office 365 Personal is $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year. Add the fact that all these low cost PCs will come with Bing as their default search engine, hence generating ad revenue for Microsoft, and you can see that this strategy makes sense for Microsoft even without a threat from Chromebooks.

Chromebook Disruption Revisited

Although some people consider Chromebooks to be a low-end disruption to traditional laptop PCs, I have been skeptical of this for quite a while (“Why the Chromebook is not a Low-End Disruption”). In January 2013, I even outlined why Chromebooks will ultimately follow the fate of Netbooks.

The flattening of iPad sales (1, 2, 3) strengthens my conviction.

Simply said, low-end disruption is much harder than many people believe. iPads have failed to replace laptop PCs in the low-end disruption fashion; Apple is now focussing on new-market disruption as is clearly demonstrated in the new “Your Verse” marketing theme.

Even with low-end disruption, there has to be a significant new-market disruption element. Low-end disruption is more than a few hundred dollars saved or a small bit of convenience. There has to be a clear and hugely significant improvement that broadens the use-cases, thereby allowing computing to happen in situations where it was not previously feasible. The “Your Verse” campaign is trying to tell us that the iPad does exactly this.

It follows that if iPads failed to disrupt laptop PCs, the chances of Chromebooks doing the same is close to zero.