The Chromebook is turning into the success that some thought Netbooks would achieve

Remember a few years ago when tablets hadn’t yet come onto the scene, and all the tech pundits were talking about massive growth in the Netbook market? These mostly Windows-powered computers were more portable and less expensive than traditional laptops, so there were lots of predictions for huge growth in the sector.

I was never a big believer in the idea, but that’s just because I couldn’t see the benefit of small, underpowered hardware running an OS that I felt was bloated and inefficient. My view had nothing to do with tablets, because they weren’t on the scene yet. 

We all know what happened next. Apple introduced the iPad, Android started to optimize its OS for tablets, and now we have a pretty good variety of light, cheap, efficient and net-connected mobile computers. Tablets win. Netbooks lose.

But I still think the goal of Netbooks made sense. Make laptop computers smaller and cheaper while giving users connectivity to the online stuff that matters most to them. As much as I love smartphones and tablets, I type a lot, and I want a real keyboard to do it on. And in business, people type a lot. Until somebody comes up with a better way to input text on a screen, the physical keyboard remains a very important tool.

That’s why I think Google is so well positioned following the launch of Chrome OS over the last couple of years. The Chromebook actually fulfills the original goal of the Netbook while maintaining a full sized keyboard, and therefore being more business friendly. Chromebooks are super light, run a super-thin OS, minimal on board storage, yet they pack a punch when it comes to web-based work.

Today, Chrome OS hardly measures on any market share studies. But there are plenty of people talking about the potential for Chromebooks and even the "desktop" version Chromebox, which is sort of like the Mac Mini of the Chrome OS platform. I don’t think today’s market share numbers matter much. Some of the use cases are just so obvious that they speak for themselves. I think it paints a clear picture of falling market share for Microsoft while Google makes gains in the enterprise.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting all PCs will be replaced. Especially in the enterprise, this is a rather slow process and there are always going to be spots where machines running Windows are called for. But I think that market is shrinking, and Google stands a great shot of capturing significant market share in business.

The Wall Street Journal ran a nice post talking about exactly this topic. For example, call center employees usually need a computer to work on. But you can't really argue that they need Windows. Everything can be done through the browser, and the IT folks can save a bundle on equipment capital expense, software licensing and maintenance.

About 4 months ago I bought a $199 Samsung Chromebook to replace a dying 2006 Macbook. While I think the screen quality is pretty horrible and it sometimes chokes when you try to multitask while playing HD video, it does practically everything we need it to do at home … so much so that my kids actually fight over it in the morning. They’d rather surf Netflix from the Chromebook versus the iPad. If Chrome OS can meet the needs of call centers and kids, I think it speaks volumes. As Chris Anderson explained so well in his 2009 book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, the business case behind free is strong. Google’s Chrome OS has a growing place in the market, and I think Microsoft is in trouble.