When the world's largest PC manufacturer starts making Chromebooks, what does it mean? Does it reveal a degree of uncertainty about the direction of the PC? A response to the perceived complexity of Windows 8 machines? An underserved market it can exploit?
Why not all of the above?
Early Monday morning, Hewlett-Packard announced the Pavilion 14 Chromebook, a $329.99 netbook boasting both a larger screen - 14 inches - than rival Chromebooks, as well as a new pricing tier. HP's Pavilion 14 brings the total Chromebook count to four: the $229 Samsung Chromebook, the $199 Acer C7, the $449 Samsung Chromebook 550, and the Pavilion 14. HP's screen may be the largest of the bunch, but its processor - a dual-core Intel Celeron - sits below the Chromebook's 550's Intel Core processor.
More Of The Same
The new HP Chromebook is essentially the same as the others: it runs Google's Chrome OS, a bare-bones operating system that, on the surface, does little more than launch a Web browser. (Some games, such as the indie hit Bastion, also have been ported over to the OS.) Each of the four Chromebooks, aside from the C7, includes a 16GB solid-state drive, and connects to the Web via a Wi-Fi connection. HP said that the battery life for its version is a disappointing 4.25 hours, rather than the 6 hours or so offered by some of the other Chromebooks.
Google has positioned the Chromebook as "companion devices," the same tack HP took as it launched the Pavilion 14. In my own use, I've found that Chromebooks and Chromeboxes are a simple, easy and effective way of accessing the Web - although a dearth of apps and a complicated approach to printing mean it can't quite compete with full-fledged PC functionality. But there's something to be said for a "PC" that boots up and resumes almost instantly, downloads patches in the background and offers a managed computing experience better than anything Apple or Microsoft offer.
A Slap To Microsoft?
Still, the fact that the largest PC maker in the world began offering a Chromebook just months after Microsoft launched Windows 8 might be seen as a slap in the face to Microsoft. And long-term, HP's Chromebook may blossom into something more. For now, though, analyst Bob O'Donnell with IDC saw the announcement as nothing more than HP dipping its toe into a new market.
"I think they're trying to offer an even lower-cost notebook option with this and trying to stand out with a larger-size screen," O'Donnell wrote in an email. "But ultimately, I think it's testing the waters and filling out their price range."
ReadWrite reached out to both Microsoft and HP for comment, but we haven't heard back. In the meantime, a statement from HP indicates that it believes the market for Google's ChromeOS is growing.
"Google's Chrome OS is showing great appeal to a growing customer base," said Kevin Frost, vice president and general manager, Consumer PCs, Printing and Personal Systems, HP, in a statement. "With HP's Chromebook, customers can get the best of the Google experience on a full-sized laptop—all backed up by our service and brand."
HP & Chromebook: An Odd Couple When It Comes To Printing
It might be a bit odd to think of Hewlett-Packard and Chromebooks together, if only because of the awkward approach Google takes toward printing. You can't connect a USB printer directly to a Chromebook or Chromebox; instead, you either need to connect to a network-connected printer through a service called "Google Cloud Print" or use a Chrome extension to a traditional PC or notebook that is itself connected to the printer via a USB cable. (Of course, if your home doesn't have a dedicated desktop PC hooked up to a printer, the latter approach may not work so well for you.) Apparently, wirelessly connected PCs and multifunction printers are now common enough so that HP felt that there's enough of a critical mass to make this approach feasible.
But as far as the direction of the PC market is concerned, the impact of an HP Chromebook is clearly muddy. That is, no one quite knows the direction the venerable PC will take over the next few years. The conventional thinking seems to be that minicomputers gave way to desktops, desktops to notebooks, and notebooks to... where, exactly? Tablets are one answer, and HP's Windows 8 convertible notebooks fill that niche. But there may still be profits to be extracted in cheap netbooks, and Google's Chromebooks may answer that call.
In addition, by offering its own Chromebook, HP can gain invaluable market information. Instead of hiring IDC or Gartner to provide sales forecasts on the expected success of the Chromebook category, HP can use the Pavilion 14 to generate real data on which way the wind is blowing. If over time we see HP announce a refreshed or additional Chromebook, we'll know that the Chromebook's sails are filling out.
Images courtesy of HP.