toshiba cb35 a3120 chromebook feb 2014 top left lidImage: Michael Homnick

Chromebook usage: Still a tiny splash in the vast PC pond

For Google's Chromebooks, making a dent in the PC install base is going to take a while.

Chrome OS, the browser-based operating system used by Chromebooks, drove 0.2 percent of desktop Web traffic in North America last month, according to a usage study by Chitika. That's up from 0.1 percent last September, and up from 0.07 percent a year ago.

By comparison, Linux Web traffic grew from 1.1 percent to 1.9 percent over the last five months. Chitika didn't provide statistics for Windows or Mac, but they presumably account for nearly all of the remaining desktop traffic.

chitikachromeos Chitika

Chitika bases its data on impressions within its ad network of more than 300,000 websites. The firm counts page loads, rather than unique visits, so a user who visits lots of in-network sites would be weighted more heavily than a user who doesn't. Still, the methodology provides a general sense of how frequently people are using one platform versus another.

Putting it in perspective

While 0.2 percent is a tiny number, keep in mind that there are already hundreds of millions of PCs—mostly Windows PCs—in use in North America, and the estimated global install base of PCs is around 1.6 billion. That's a massive head start when it comes to usage metrics. Chromebooks haven't exploded onto the scene like smartphones and tablets, but they've managed to find some growth amidst a declining market for laptops.

Chromebooks have also shown some other signs of life, usage numbers aside. Amazon said two of its three best-selling notebooks last holiday season were Chromebooks. The laptops have also been doing extremely well in commercial sales channels for businesses and institutional buyers according to NPD, and one estimate by FutureSource Consulting claims that Chromebooks made up 20 percent K-12 education sales in the third quarter of last year.

If Chromebooks are going to take a bite out of desktop usage, it'll be slowly and steadily rather than overnight. To that end, Google is renewing its attack on the workplace with a new, business-focused HP Chromebox, a Chromebook-based videoconferencing system, and a partnership with VMware for running Windows applications. Much like Google's pitch to consumers, both moves promise bring down the overall cost and hassle of Windows-based computing—even if it means trading away the capabilities of a full-blown desktop operating system.

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