It was a bit strange to be interviewing Lenovo's head of Chromebooks at CES, seeing as Lenovo didn't bring any Chromebooks to the electronics industry's annual trade show.
But Jeffrey Meredith, the company's vice president and general manager of Android and Chrome computing, says more Lenovo Chromebooks are coming soon. And while Google's lightweight laptops have already taken over the education market, Meredith believes the consumer business is about to flourish as well.
"Chrome, since its infancy, has been mainly education, mainly cost-driven, largely bought-on-bid kind of devices," Meredith says. "What's going to play over the next few months is, Chromebooks are going to move out of this education-almost-exclusive channel focus, into retail and into commercial."
The push for consumer Chromebooks will partly be driven by hardware, with Lenovo planning two waves of new devices in March and September. It'll also be boosted by Google's introduction of Android apps to the Chrome operating system.
What's less certain is whether Google and its partners can convince people to give Chromebooks another look.
Chromebooks are built on Google's Chrome OS, which was originally designed around the idea of replacing local apps with web apps. Although the platform allowed some web-based apps to run locally, without an internet connection, the system's primary purpose was to run the Chrome browser as efficiently as possible.
That focus helped Chromebooks soar in the education market, where the concept of a browser-based, centrally managed computer has been hugely appealing to administrators. Students can log in, get instant access to Google services and whatever other sites and web apps the school allows, then have everything wiped off the machine when they log out.
In the third quarter of 2016, Chromebooks made up 54% of computer shipments to K-12 classrooms in the United States, says IDC analyst Linn Huang. That market share figure even factors in iPads, which themselves have been successful in education.
Despite periodic pushes by Google, Chromebooks have been less disruptive in the consumer market, where IDC expects them to nab just 6% of U.S. laptop shipments in 2016, up from 4% in 2015. The problem is that their emphasis on speed, simplicity, and security never resonated beyond a small niche of tech-savvy users, and so the main argument for buying one became about price. Chromebooks tend to be cheaper than Windows PCs, because Chrome OS is free to license and doesn't require a lot of computing power. While the low-cost angle may have given Google some market share, Huang argues that it also damaged the brand.
"There's still a perception on the market that Chromebooks are the cheap, low-cost alternatives to Windows," Huang says. "It's what I'll buy grandma, but it's not what I'll use for myself."
For that reason, Huang is slightly pessimistic about Chromebooks's disruptive potential. "A good amount of consumer education has to happen for Chrome to shed its label of being this sub-notebook, if you will," he adds.
Lenovo's Meredith believes the time is right for another big consumer push.
Although Android apps launched on a small number of Chromebooks last year, Meredith expects them to become much more broadly available in 2017. This will make Chromebooks more interesting to a mainstream audience, he says, because all the apps and services people have on their phones will become accessible on a Chromebook. Meanwhile, the lack of a traditional PC experience will be less of a problem for younger users who've grown up on cloud services like Netflix and Facebook.
"As you think about the evolving behaviors and usage trends, paired with the fact that you have a big app ecosystem that is now accessible, we think that an audience in retail that's probably 30 and under is the primary target, all the way down to kids that gain their first exposure to a Chromebook in their schools," Meredith says.
Being in the Google ecosystem also helps, Meredith adds.
"You can't avoid or ignore the idea that a generation of people have kind of grown up with Google, and that they've used the Play Store, they've used Docs, they've used [Google] search," he says. "So they're actually entrenched in Google, and the best way to make use of many of the things that people have grown up with is a Chromebook."
On the hardware side, Lenovo will try to add some excitement with a slew of new devices, first in March, and then again in September. While Meredith won't talk specifics, the devices will likely crib from what Lenovo has been doing with Android and Windows in devices such as the Yoga Book. That means more touch screens, pen-based input, and convertible designs that blur the line between tablet and laptop.
"You can envision, if you're really going to get the full benefit out of the app environment, you'll need touch, you'll need a form that can function in a mode that's good for gaming, or productivity, or video viewing," Meredith says. "You'll see form factors that start to challenge some of the norms of the past."
Despite the influx of apps and hardware, Meredith believes Chromebooks will stay true to their original mix of speed, simplicity, and security.
"If I flip the thing up and it comes on, that's a Chromebook. It should always be that. It should update with great frequency, even if you add all the apps to it, and that adds complexity. It should still have the constant updates to stay fresh. It should still be the most secure device out there," he says. "We talk about making sure that we stay true to that original vision of why the product was created in the first place."
So how will device makers like Lenovo spread the word that Chromebooks aren't just cheap Windows alternatives anymore?
Meredith admits that the other benefits of Chromebooks have been tough to communicate. "Everybody wants simple stuff but you don't want to be told it's simple," he says. "Everybody wants security, but really talking about security in enough detail that people understand how secure it is isn't that easy."
The likely starting point, Meredith says, will be the hardware itself, along with the behavioral changes that might make people want a Google-centric, cloud-connected, touch-enabled laptop. Later on, it might make sense to talk more about the security of Chromebooks, the auto-updates, and the size of the app ecosystem.
"You know that you don't hit the save button anymore. Many people use Google Docs everyday," he says. "So I think tying up into, 'this is who you are and how you do stuff, this is the device that actually fits best for that,' is probably where we'll start."
IDC's Linn Huang says he's heard whispers of a big consumer Chromebook push as well. And while he's somewhat skeptical of the potential, he has been impressed with Google's own marketing efforts lately, noting that the company's advertising for its new Pixel phones has been successful.
"I would trust that Google would be able to pull that off from a consumer education perspective," he says. "But it's probably a longer slog than even they think it is."