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Google Sells Chromebooks Without Subscriptions

Monthly fee model expanded to allow customers to purchase the Web-centric notebooks outright.
Samsung Chromebook: Hands-On Visual Tour
Slideshow: Samsung Chromebook: Hands-On Visual Tour
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Google said Friday that it is expanding the pricing options for Chromebooks, the Web-only notebooks that Google's hardware partners Acer and Samsung began offering to consumers through Amazon, Best Buy, and in June.

Google has been selling Chromebooks as a subscription service directly to business and education customers, starting at $28 per month for businesses and $20 per month for schools. Chromebook subscriptions extend for three years. After that period, customers own the Chromebooks; they can also choose to renew their subscription and receive new hardware.

But the subscription pricing model isn't right for everyone. Google product manager Glenn Wilson said in blog post that Google has decided to expand its pricing options to accommodate organizations that work with yearly budget cycles.

"To meet these customers' needs, in addition to our three-year subscription model, today we are introducing an alternative payment option," he wrote. "This new option gives schools and businesses a choice to pay upfront for Chromebooks with one year of access to the Web-based admin management console, phone support, and hardware warranty coverage."

After that, customers have the option of paying a monthly fee for support and access to the administrative management console. But hardware warranty coverage is lost.

[Find out what we thought about Google's Chromebook. Read Samsung Series 5 Chromebook: Hands-On Review.]

Whether this will encourage more businesses and schools to invest in Chromebooks remains to be seen. Google has been silent about Chromebook sales since the devices were released in June. The company has repeatedly declined to provide sales figures.

It was no more forthcoming during its recent Q3 2011 earnings conference call. Susan Wojcicki, SVP of advertising at Google, said on the call that Acer and Samsung were selling Chromebooks in seven countries in addition to the United States, but she offered no guidance about the number of Chromebook customers.

This is not a good sign. Normally, when a technology product is selling well, the company that made the product will issue a press release or let someone know. For example, Apple recently trumpeted the fact that four million of its iPhone 4S devices were sold in just three days.

Nonetheless, expectations should be a bit more modest for a product running an operating system with no installed base that promises fewer capabilities (along with fewer problems) than competing notebooks running Linux, Mac OS, or Windows.

Among the presumed few who have taken the plunge and bought into Chrome OS, Cedric Paine, director of technology at the Fessenden School in West Newton, Mass., was effusive about Google's gambit to move personal computing into the cloud.

"I really think this is the most promising technology out there right now, for a school situation," he said in a phone interview.

Paine said the Chromebook is ideal for Web apps, which he expects will become the preferred form of software. "I think we'll see more HTML5 apps and that will be the standard over time, rather than iPad apps that are locked into a particular platform. This is open."

The Fessenden School has 55 Chromebooks among the 325 devices that it maintains for 480 students and 160 faculty and staff.

Paine said the moment he heard about the pricing model change, he inquired to Google about whether he could switch to the outright purchase plan. Buying Chromebooks through an upfront purchase would save the school about $150 per device, he estimated. Asked about this, Google said it will not be providing customers with the option to switch pricing plans at this time.

Paine mostly praised Chromebooks, noting that they're fast and start right up. "It has a keyboard, which is really important," he said. He also dismissed tablets, noting that they're "geared toward consumption" and that in a school, "you want a device geared toward production."

This perhaps glosses over the iPad's utility as a content creation tool, particularly with an add-on keyboard. But retrofitting a touch-based device with a keyboard requires some adjustment to work habits, and the limitations Apple imposes on how one can move files can be irksome.

Paine's one complaint about Chromebooks had to do with the unreliability of Google Cloud Print, the service by which Chromebook users are supposed to be able to connect to networked printers. He said that some attempts to print didn't work because the cloud print server had an error that needed to be cleared. But he added that printing has become less of an issue now that so much is done in the cloud--Fessenden switched to Google Apps about two years ago.

Paine didn't know how well Chromebooks had been selling. He said he was aware of a few other schools that are using them. He added that he'd spoken about Chromebooks before gatherings of educators in New York and Boston recently and that there's a high level of interest.

"I am really happy with them and the teachers and kids like them," he said.

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