COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Chromebook’s success in education

I recently attended an open house for my 10-year-old grandson at his public school in Marin County. On every desk in his fifth-grade classroom was a Samsung Chromebook.

He explained to me that it’s used primarily while connected to the Internet, and he knew all about Google Docs, which provide Office-like functionality. When I asked if they use iPads, he said. “Of course not; they’re more for games and not real computers.”

He said he likes the Chromebook because it allows him to write papers and do research at his desk, and collaborate on projects with classmates. It also lets him write papers or do research on his home computer and then access that information at school. And it’s just like the computer his parents use, so it’s familiar and easy for him to use.

The Chromebook was developed by Google as a bare-bones notebook computer designed to leverage the Internet, much as work stations were used in the past. It uses a simple OS based around the Chrome browser. Some even resemble a MacBook Air, slim and light, and weighing as little as 3 pounds.

A Chromebook has little memory or internal storage, it can use a low-cost processor, and doesn’t need the latest display technology. Because most of the software and computing power is accessed on the Internet, the device rarely needs upgrading and viruses are rare.

What’s happening in this school is being repeated in thousands across America. The Chromebook has become one of the most popular devices for elementary education; Google claims that Chromebooks are approaching 50 percent share of the U.S. education market.

IDC, a market research company, reported that’s already happened, with 715,000 Chromebooks shipped to U.S. schools in the third quarter of 2014, while Apple shipped 702,000.

While it may be less glamorous than an iPad, a Chromebook can cost one-third the price, yet it has a full size keyboard and a larger display. Chromebooks have a long battery life, similar to an iPad. They’re available from HP, Samsung, Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba, Asus and Google. While models can cost up to $1,000 with a premium display and additional memory, a $300 model offers very good utility.

School administrators also like Chromebooks because they’re easier to manage with the built-in capabilities for IT managers. The devices can be shared because the association between the user and device is determined when connecting to the Web rather than on the device itself, as on the iPad. As a result, fewer Chromebooks are needed because a school’s Chromebooks can be shared while all the personal information, files and settings remain private.

In its latest study, Gartner, another marketing research company, wrote that it expects worldwide sales of Chromebooks to reach 7.3 million units this year, a 27 percent increase from 2014.

Education is the primary market and represented 72 percent of the worldwide Chromebook market in 2014. By comparison, Apple sold 68 million iPads in 2014, but only a small fraction were for educational institutions.

Google’s original target for Chromebooks was business, particularly for those companies wanting a low-cost alternative to notebooks. But Chromebooks have been slow to catch on here, primarily because of the lower cost of notebooks, the limited functionality and complexity of Google Docs and the device’s limited usefulness without an Internet connection.

Chromebooks have been more successful in business for those looking for a second low-cost computer that’s a companion to their primary computer, and can be particularly useful for traveling. Because all of its files are accessed from the Web using Google drive, or other Web-storage services, syncing is not needed with a primary computer.

Because many of the files are accessible on the Web, the computer contains little that is personal, and if it is lost or stolen, it’s not a big deal.

Last week I wrote about the new MacBook as a second computer for traveling, but a Chromebook is another excellent alternative and much more affordable — as little as 20 percent of the cost of a MacBook. The benefit of the MacBook is its ability to do much of your work untethered to the Web and be able to store much more on your computer, including music and photos.

But a $300 Chromebook is much less of a concern if it’s stolen or lost; it essentially becomes disposable.

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Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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