A couple of weeks ago, a seemingly closed chapter (as far as India went) was reopened. Almost five years after having been introduced in India, the Chromebook made a return of sorts to the Indian market. And it came from as big a brand as you can get in the Indian notebook market – HP. The brand marked the return of the Chromebook to the Indian market with the launch of its X360. The launch also highlighted just how much had changed for the Chromebook since its first introduction to India.
For those who know it not, the Chromebook was supposed to be the über affordable notebook – the one that allowed you to do just about every routine notebook activity, by using mostly online tools and relatively fewer hardware resources. It ran on Chrome OS, a very light and speedy OS built around, as its name indicated, the Chrome browser and Google’s services. Most significantly, the use of relatively less powerful hardware allows Chromebooks to be super affordable, without compromising on speed or performance. Indeed, most Chromebooks boot up and shut down in seconds and have battery life that comfortably runs close to double digits in hours. Thanks to these relatively low system requirements, most Chromebooks come with price tags that are surprisingly low (much lower than a basic iPad) – one of the biggest reasons why Chromebooks are such a rage in the US. In fact, when Google launched Chromebooks that cost as little as Rs 12,999 (that’s lesser than what a Redmi Note 7 Pro costs today).
The HP X360 Chromebook, however, came with a price tag of Rs 44,990. Yes, it had some very good hardware on board, including a full HD display, an Intel Core i3 processor, and 64 GB storage which is expandable. But one couldn’t ignore the irony of the moment – HP itself had a Core i3 variant of the X360 running Windows 10 which came at a slightly lower price. The company later released a more affordable Chromebook at Rs 23,990, but even that was relatively high by Chromebook standards. In fact, Asus has a Vivobook that runs Windows 10 at under Rs 20,000, and believe us; it works quite well.
All of which might make some wonder whatever happened to the Chromebook in India? It was almost perfect for Indian conditions. Super affordable, super fast, and very very portable – we called one of its variants a perfect tool for writers (https://techpp.com/2015/06/16/review-nexian-air-chromebook/). At a time when Windows computers were a little on the expensive side, and the more affordable ones came with inevitable performance compromises, the Chromebook seemed the perfect solution. Yes, it was not designed for heavy-duty gaming, and you could not run MS Office or Adobe Photoshop on it, but not everyone wanted to play hefty games or run Photoshop on a notebook that cost around Rs 15,000, and there were alternatives to MS Office (Google Docs) that worked a dream on Chromebooks. And the arrival of Chromebooks in India seemed perfect too – Reliance’s Jio incredibly affordable 4G plans came a year barely after their introduction in India, allowing you to stay online for longer at lower costs. A number of brands were offering them at very affordable prices – HP itself had a Chromebook under Rs 20,000!
In short, towards the end of 2016, Chromebooks had everything going for them in India. A year and a half later, they had all but disappeared. Now, they have made a comeback and at the time of writing, are more expensive than Windows computers in India.
So what went so terribly wrong? Well, tech pundits have debated the matter for months now, and the explanations range from poor marketing to network issues. The truth, however, seems to have been much more simple: retail hostility. A source in one of India’s largest electronic retailers told us that most salespersons aggressively advised customers against investing in Chromebooks terming them “underpowered” and “low quality” and also perpetuating the myth that “you need a super-fast Internet connection for them to work” (you didn’t – they could work offline) – a myth that was easy to promote because Chrome was also the name of a browser. The source stated that Windows driven PCs and notebooks simply generated far greater revenues and profits for manufacturers, and it was this that really spelled doom for the Chromebook in India, with most salespersons running down Chromebooks from their own brands in favor of Windows notebooks. There was also evidently no concerted move to push Chromebooks in Indian schools, where they would have been perfect fits. The irony was that as time passed, Windows 10 notebooks kept getting more affordable while Chromebooks started disappearing from the market. A number of brands simply did not follow up their initial Chromebook launches and that further undermined consumer confidence.
The result: today, there are only two Chromebooks officially available in India, a market tailormade for them to flourish in, and one of them costs more than the base Microsoft Surface! There evidently are more Chromebooks on the way, notably from Asus, Acer, and Lenovo, which is good news for those wanting to see the OS in India. Chrome OS itself is believed to have improved significantly, with better support for Android applications. Once again, the conditions are excellent for it to flourish.
However, the challenges before Chromebooks remain the same. When I asked about the Chromebook X360 in a store in Delhi, the salesperson replied contemptuously: “Bekaar cheez hai. Asli Windows notebook lo!” (“It is a useless thing. Buy a real Windows notebook!”).