Big companies have been known to make decisions that aren’t readily understandable to outsiders, and Google’s Chromebook Pixel is the latest in the series. For those of you who haven’t been following the story, the Pixel is the company’s self-designed laptop, priced at $1,299 for the base model and $1,499 for the LTE version. It’s got journalists, analysts and the technorati scratching their heads.
Most reviewers agree that the Pixel’s hardware is on-par with similarly priced high-end laptops, like Apple‘s MacBook Air and top-of-the-line Windows Ultrabooks. The Pixel has one of the best, if not the best, screens on a laptop, and is also touch-sensitive. Though not as thin as the MacBook Air’s, its anodized aluminum body is a fashion statement in its own right.
The Pixel’s Achilles’ heel: software. Every time a new Chromebook is released, we revisit the question: Is Chrome OS even practical? The notion is even more relevant this time, since the Pixel is at least $1,000 more expensive than its predecessors.
Chromebooks were initially positioned as inexpensive secondary laptops, easily replaceable without making you worry about data backups since everything lives in the cloud. Powered by an OS that’s nothing more than an exceptionally capable Web browser, most models are priced lower than high-end tablets, and they’re a lot cheaper than most Windows laptops or MacBooks.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but those with the thickest wallets, whether or not they’re fully living in the cloud, even considering the Pixel. Google should know this, and chances are they’re prepared to see low sales on this product.
So, Why bother?
With the Pixel, Google’s no doubt aiming for something other than unit sales. The company’s known for designing its own hardware for every major version of Android, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s simply doing the same with Chromebooks. In other words, the Pixel may be a reference device from which Google hopes OEMs can learn a thing or two. It’s the laptop version of Nexus.
This may be Google’s way of encouraging OEMs to build moderately priced Chromebooks with better quality and more attention to detail. Such laptops could appeal to users who don’t mind being trapped in a browser-only computer and prefer quality stuff over what they’d get with a sub-$300 plastic device.
Call me myopic, but despite all the improvements made on Chrome OS and all the talk about the cloud, I’m not convinced that Chromebooks will be the equal of Windows-based laptops or MacBooks anytime soon. They’re really just devices that stand between tablets and full-featured computers. Yes, they’re quick to boot, easy to use and in most cases “just work” without much maintenance required — just like a tablet. And, yes, they offer a full browsing experience and better multitasking — just like a fully featured computer. But, unfortunately, for most users they’re neither a good tablet nor a good computer.
Owning both a PC and a tablet isn’t uncommon anymore, and with Microsoft trying to pull both devices together with Windows 8, Chromebook faces a long road before it achieves broad appeal. The Pixel tagline, “For what’s next,” may indicate that the device means to pave the way to the future of this category.
You have to commend Google’s efforts to change the status quo. Maybe the company sees something that’s not visible to me. After all, the first iPhone was seen as an overpriced product with limited functionality. Yet it boomed. Perhaps one day we’ll be ready to give up our feature-rich but frustrating computers in exchange for an easy-to-use and worry-free Chromebook — despite its shortcomings.