Why are Chromebooks so popular on Amazon?

By Michael Carney , written on January 11, 2013

From The News Desk

If Amazon doesn’t sell it, you likely don’t want it. Or at least that’s the way it often seems given the enormous and diverse list of products available on the leading ecommerce marketplace. Given this selection, one would think that Amazon’s sell through statistics would match those of the rest of the market. Hit products would be hits on Amazon. Duds, would suffer the same lonely fate.

This is why I was shocked when I read earlier this week that the top selling laptop computer on Amazon wasn’t an HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, or Asus – the World’s top five PC sellers in order. It wasn’t an Apple Macbook for that matter either, despite their rapid growth in popularity. In fact, the top seller doesn’t even run Windows or Mac OS. It runs Linux.

The top selling laptop on Amazon at the moment, shockingly, is the 11.6 inch W-Fi-only Samsung Chromebook. But why?

My initial instinct was that Amazon is known as the place you go to get a deal – and to avoid waiting in lines and dealing with pesky retail salespeople. At $321.87, it’s the cheapest device in the Top 10, but not by much. (An interesting aside is that the device is listed at $249, but is selling above MSRP due to high demand and limited supply.) It stands ahead of the newest 13.3 inch Macbook Pro and Macbook Airs, both priced over $1,000, a full-featured Dell priced at nearly $500, and a variety of PC “Ultrabooks.”

The eighth-most popular unit on the list, a 15.6 inch Toshiba Satellite comes in at $349.99. Two others, one from Acer and one from Asus, each come in at under $400, although barely. Given this, I’m inclined to say that it’s not price, or not price alone, that’s driving this trend.

Google’s Linux-based Chromebooks run on an entirely browser-based OS. Users don’t install traditional desktop software like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. Instead, they use browser-based equivalents, either from the same company or a competitor. Also, given that Chromebooks are based on Arm processors – the same ones used in the now deceased Netbooks of yore – they can’t be easily updated to Windows.

To get the most out of these devices, a user must always have data connectivity, either through Wi-Fi or a mobile broadband connection. The only thing they can do when not connected is use the limited offline functionality of Google’s core products like Gmail, Docs, and Drive. Users can edit existing documents and create new ones, but can’t sync anything with the cloud.

In the case of emails, this means that new messages can’t be downloaded, and composed messages can’t be sent (only saved for sending later). In Drive, it means that all collaborative functionality is lost. It also means that any documents added or changes made since the device was last connected to the internet – say by a colleague – won’t be available either.

That’s what makes the specific model leading Amazon’s charts such a puzzler. It’s the Wi-Fi only model. A 3G-equipped version would cost $429.99, plus the monthly data subscription. So buyers of these Chromebooks are essentially saying either, “I will always be in range of Wi-Fi” – not an enormous stretch in many urban environments these days – or I don’t need my machine to be fully functional at all times.

But this isn’t a referendum on the viability or value of Chromebooks. It’s an inquiry into why they’re disproportionately popular on Amazon compared to in the broader market.

There’s an appeal to Chromebooks. They offer both a simplicity and in some cases an air of rebelliousness that Windows and Mac OS can’t touch. One reason then may be that Amazon’s clientele lends itself to a contrarian, rebellious, or forward-thinking consumer. As long as ecommerce has been around, it’s still not the default for many. So this idea is plausible. But it doesn’t seem like enough to justify the results.

Another possible explanation is that Chromebooks sell better online, rather than in brick-and-mortar retail stores. Best Buy carries multiple Chromebooks, both in its stores and online (although the above mentioned Samsung is currently sold out). I don’t have data available on their sell through there, but I would be surprised if their laptop sales, at least in-store, didn’t better mirror the broader market.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that a hand’s on demo of a Chromebook in-store would turn away the casually curious consumer. It’s not that the devices or the OS aren’t good, but that it would seem to take some time to realize their full potential. This remorseful buyer theory doesn’t hold water either though, given that the top-selling Samsung Chromebook has a 4.2 star rating with over 702 reviews on Amazon.

Google sells chromebooks directly via its website, with three models currently listed: the above Samsung Chromebook, a higher-spec Samsung Chromebook 550 for $449, and a bargain Acer C7 Chromebook available for a lean $199. Interestingly, only the Acer is currently available for order directly through Google. In the case of the two Samsungs, the company offers consumers the option to purchase through Amazon or Best Buy.

Given the general consumer dissent aimed at Best Buy lately, especially among the technorati that would be likely to opt for a Chromebook, it’s a good bet that Amazon wins this battle in most cases. So maybe that’s the answer. Chromebooks are in limited supply everywhere. People that are looking for them, which is apparently more than you might think, are all being funneled toward Amazon, even by Google itself.

As we’ve argued here in the past, all commerce roads point to Amazon. The case of the Chromebook appears to be no different.