Recent media reports that Chromebooks had had a successful 2013 drew criticism from analysts, including one whose data sparked the coverage.
"There has been a ton of misreporting as many lazy reporters and bloggers have characterized this as all sales, which it wasn't, or even consumer sales, which it most assuredly was not," said Stephen Baker of the NPD Group, in an email reply to questions. "It has been very personally distressing to me that so many reporters/bloggers refuse to read, or don't know what commercial channels mean."
Baker was referring to information NPD released Dec. 23 that said Chromebooks accounted for 21% of all U.S. notebook sales through the commercial retail channel for the first 11 months of 2013.
In his email, Baker defined the commercial channel as the distributors -- like CDW and Ingram Micro -- that many businesses, government agencies, schools and other organizations use to buy personal computers and other devices. His data did not include consumer sales, nor PCs sold by OEMs, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, directly to businesses.
Computerworld reported on Baker's findings -- as well as Amazon.com's tout about Chromebooks grabbing two of the three spots in its holiday best-selling computers list -- on Dec. 27. The news story failed to clarify that NPD's figures tracked only those sales through distributors, but did note that the numbers were for commercial sales only.
When other reports assumed that NPD's data included all U.S. sales, including consumer, or that the numbers reflected all business sales, not just retail through distributors, skeptics wondered what the writers, or their source, Baker, had been smoking.
"I know it's a slow news week but three bull**** stories is a bit much," tweeted analyst Benedict Evans on Dec. 29, citing "Chromebook explosion" as one of the trio. "All nonsense," Evans said.
Critics of the reports scoffed at the data, misinterpreted or not, saying that they'd never seen a Chromebook in the wild, implying that meant the devices could not exist in numbers, and that Google's browser-based Chrome OS, which powers Chromebooks, would never threaten Windows' dominant position in notebook operating systems.
Even Microsoft got in on the act.
A spokesperson emailed Computerworld with a list of what he called "observations," citing data from researcher IDC to claim that if a "fuller measure of sales" were used, Chromebooks would account for just 2% of the global personal computer market, that seven of Amazon's top 10 were Windows-based systems, and that because only about 20 Chromebook notebooks were for sale on Amazon during the holidays, compared to hundreds of Windows laptops, "It is only natural that the few [Chromebook] models would cluster at the top."
Nonetheless, Baker and others defended the idea that Chromebooks did well in 2013.
"Chrome had a fabulous year," said Baker, talking about Chrome OS, not the multi-platform browser by that name.
"Yes, I think [the story] was much too overblown with the angles much of the media took, [but] that being said, the growth of the category is a key one to watch," said Ben Bajarin, analyst with Creative Strategies, via email. "What is valid is the potential of this product to further disrupt Microsoft."
Previously, Baker had contended that Chromebooks were one mark of how OEMs, whether by choice or necessity, have capitalized on Windows 8's slow start. "Tepid Windows PC sales allowed brands with a focus on alternative form factors or operating systems ... to capture significant share of a market traditionally dominated by Windows devices," Baker said two weeks ago.
But in his email Baker said he didn't buy the idea that it was a zero-sum game for Windows and Chromebook OS.
"On the subject of Chromebooks versus clamshell notebooks, I don't subscribe to the idea that [the former] are taking sales from Windows," Baker said. "In my view, they are just as likely, actually more likely, to be taking sales from Android tablets or iPads, or just expanding the market than they are taking sales from Windows PCs in these business-to-business and education markets."
Bajarin agreed on the tablet impact, but not that Chromebooks didn't have the potential to hurt Microsoft. "Chromebooks need to be looked at in the same light as tablets to a degree, in that a sale of a tablet, particularly a non-Windows one, and the sale of a Chromebook, are sales of products that are chipping away at Microsoft's once-dominant position," Bajarin said.
The usage share of Chrome OS in the last two months of 2013 was miniscule, but climbed rapidly starting in mid-December. Microsoft's Windows RT was included for reference. (Data: StatCounter.)
In a Dec. 29 piece published on Techpinions ( subscription required), Bajarin elaborated on his Chromebook take, citing education's interest in the devices as student tools for accessing Web-based curriculum.
"While Chromebooks have a great deal of upside as they evolve, they are being used as specific-purpose devices in nearly all markets today," Bajarin wrote. "This is both the potential of the upside but also the product's challenge in going up against more general-purpose computing devices. Over the next few years, whether its role is as specific-purpose or general-purpose will wait to be seen."
Other critics took aim at the disparity between the talk of Chromebook sales and the lack of online usage evidence from Web metrics firms to corroborate those claims.
"That Chromebooks are out there is not in doubt, but much like Android, there is an intriguing disconnect between the reported sales and the evidence of usage online," said Forbes contributor Ewan Spence on the publication's website on Dec. 30.
But Chrome OS does show up in some statistics.
Irish analyst company StatCounter, for example, has plotted usage share of Chrome OS both worldwide and in the U.S. StatCounter calculates usage share by tallying page views, essentially showing how active users of a particular OS are on the Internet.
(Metrics rival Net Applications, meanwhile, tracks user share by counting unique visitors to its clients' websites, effectively generating something close to a percentage of systems that run a specific operating system. Net Applications has yet to publish Chrome OS user share numbers, however. Last week, the company's head of marketing said, "We still haven't seen enough Chrome OS usage to start including it in our reports yet," when Computerworld asked for data.)
According to StatCounter, Chrome OS powered an average of 0.33% of all U.S. desktops and tablets in December, up from 0.15% in November. In the first five days of January, Chrome OS's share climbed to 0.42%.
While those numbers are small -- December's 0.33% is equivalent to 33 page views out of each 10,000 -- Chrome OS' trend line was up markedly between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, 2013. In other words, while relatively few people may be using a Chromebook to reach the Internet -- very few, StatCounter's data hinted, compared to, say, Windows 7 -- their online activity more than doubled in two months.
Chrome OS activity also tracked significantly higher than did Microsoft's Windows RT, which powers the Redmond Wash. firm's own Surface RT and Surface 2 tablets.
StatCounter pegged the U.S. usage share of Windows RT -- the combination of the 2012 original and 2013's Windows RT 8.1 -- at 0.07% for November, 0.12% for December and 0.16% for the first five days of 2014.
But Baker objected to the usage share as a measurement of Chromebooks' success. "The whole page view thing is just goofy, in my opinion," said Baker. "It measures installed base not current sales, and the two things are only marginally related. There is no way Chrome OS, or Windows RT for that matter, can have anything in terms of share."
Still, Chromebooks could develop into yet another threat for Microsoft, which is facing trouble on multiple fronts, including -- as the progress of Chrome OS shows -- desertions by its most stalwart partners.
"The biggest question to address with these products that are stealing sales from Windows products and ecosystems is which markets," Bajarin pointed out. "This is why the key to Chromebooks was to know that NPD's numbers were to commercial organizations and in this case mostly schools. But if Chromebooks pick up in business, which is a harder short-term sell, then this would be even more concerning to Microsoft."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.