How The Chromebook at 10 stripped-down computers went mainstream

No one expected a great deal from the very first Chromebooks, announced 10 years back on May 11, 2011. After all, they arrived on the heels of the Netbook age, when cheap, low-power laptops were first seen as a panacea for overpriced technology, but ended up overselling their restricted performance.

ChromeOS announced earlier in 2011, didn’t seem like much of an operating system at all to me at that time. It was essentially just the same Chrome web browser already in wide use, using a keyboard and screen wrapped around it. The platform’s biggest glaring omission has been the ability to set up and operate applications. Who would want what was essentially a browser in a box?

A decade later, Google’s affordable laptop concept remains kicking — and thriving. Throughout the COVID-19 catastrophe, Chromebooks helped students and workers stay connected while stuck in the home. It seems like the Chromebook was ahead of its time, and it required a pandemic for its full potential to be realized.

A brand new budget challenger
The first Chromebook versions were announced exactly ten years ago, May 11, 2011, at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco. They comprised models from Samsung and Acer, still two of the larger names in Chromebooks.

Amazingly, $350-$450 is still fairly normal for an entry-level Chromebook a decade later, making this one of those few tech products which haven’t measurably increased in cost over the previous 10 decades.

As a long-time proponent of budget-priced laptops and laptops, I often say people buy a lot of computers for their requirements, especially if those desires heavily skew toward fundamental web browsing, online shopping, social networking, email, and movie viewing. Living life completely from the web browser makes sense now, but it turned out to be a tough sell back in 2011 if there were fewer cloud-based software tools.

A decade after, iPads and Chromebooks are still fighting for your casual computing attention.  The largest change is that Chromebooks have become a little more iPad-like, adding access into this Google Play app store, while iPads are becoming more laptop-like, including mouse and touchpad support.

The first taste of ChromeOS
It was only when I started going down the decade-long bunny hole of Chromebook history which I recalled the one Chromebook which predated this May 11, 2011 launch. It was Google’s own Cr-48 Chromebook, a prototype machine offered in 2010 to select pilot program invitees.

The most fascinating footnote is that a surprisingly forthright entry from Google to prospective Cr-48 Authors: “The Pilot program isn’t for the faint of heart. Things may not always do the job just perfect.” Ironically, Chromebooks are very effective by exhibiting the opposite behavior. They’re an ideal laptop for the faint of heart and things usually work correctly.

This classic gallery shows you just how generic the Cr-48 appeared and yes, it had a VGA interface.

But what did we think of these first consumer Chromebooks? The initial Samsung Chromebook won compliments from my colleague Josh Goldman for being compact, in comparison to Windows notebooks of this time.

We also reviewed an early Acer version known as the C7, which dropped its price to an impressive $199. However, our 2012 review stated it didn’t compare favorably to budget tablets and low-end Windows laptops: “The Acer C7’s advantages are a physical keyboard and touchpad, which larger hard disk, and the price. The disadvantages? Seriously short battery life and Chrome’s quite odd, compact operating system.”

Turning the corner
Things continued like this for some time. Chromebooks ate a large amount of the budget laptop mindshare as an increasing number of companies got into the action, but those machines continued to feel just like secondary or backup laptops in the best.

It even had a forward-looking 3:2 aspect ratio screen. Nevertheless, the big move that helped Chromebooks move from a niche product to the mainstream has been the then-new capability to get the Google Play app store. Being able to run nearly any Android program on a Chromebook took away the biggest objection ChromeOS skeptics needed — the inability to obtain and run local apps. Yes, they were the mobile variations, but they had been sufficient for a lot of tasks.

Today, it’s a Chromebook world
The world changed in March 2020, as offices and schools shut because of COVID-19 and so lots of items moved online. Many households, between remote school and distant work, found they had one laptop per person and cheap Chromebooks found a new audience. These were comparatively inexpensive PCs that were able to get the online programs that offices and schools were using, including Zoom and Google Classroom.

During 2020 and 2021, the Chromebook was emphasized among the best tools for students and remote workers, and laptop reviewer Josh Goldman now says a Chromebook is his default recommendation for most people right now. Why is this? I think it’s because the pandemic-related changes have forced a lot of us to reevaluate what it is we actually want our computers to perform.