NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Chromebooks, once viewed as a poor man's laptop computer, are quickly doing something unexpected, making the laptop category relevant in a world seemingly dominated by tablets and smartphones.
When Chromebooks were first introduced in 2011 as Web-centric, pared-down portable computers running Google's (GOOG) Chrome operating system, the laptop industry was taking a brutal beating from tablets and smartphones. Sales had fallen dramatically, and some observers said many people would ditch their laptops in favor of tablets.
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Over the last three years, however, Chromebooks have grown in popularity with both consumers and businesses. About 4.1 million are expected to ship in 2014, double the number that left factories in 2013.
Even more important is that Chromebooks are helping to grow the entire laptop market. Consumers are now running out and grabbing a Chromebook even when it is not needed as a replacement for an older or broken computer.
“We see that the device-per-person number is growing, especially in mature markets," said Sumit Agnihotry, vice president of product marketing at Acer, one of the companies that manufactures Chromebooks. He also said Acer expects double-digit growth for the business, consumer and education markets next year.
Chromebooks are also fitting into homes in a different way than traditional Windows laptops. Agnihotry said consumers are using Chromebooks as either a shared device, where it sits in the kitchen or another public space where it is accessible by the entire family, or as a supplemental computer. Buyers have a fully functional Windows laptop for work and a Chromebook for sitting back and checking email, social media and entertainment.
This renewed interest in laptops does not indicate there will be a falloff in the tablet's popularity, although shipments have leveled lately. Instead people are realizing that they have a need for an inexpensive, simple-to-use device with a full-size keyboard and enough processing horsepower to do more than just consume media content.
“Chromebooks may not be an official Windows laptop, but they provide a user with far more functional tools than a tablet and are less expensive than the average notebook," said Stephanie Van Vactor, ABI's research analyst for mobile devices. "Young professionals, students (parents) that may not be able to afford a notebook PC but need something portable and practical appear to be the niche of consumers investing in these devices."
ABI's most recent market share research has 57% of Chromebooks going into the business channel with the remaining 43% being bought by consumers.