The Faded but Winning Pandemic Star

Global sales have cratered for Chromebooks, which were the star computers of the pandemic. Despite the numbers, Chromebooks are part of a lasting digital expansion for schools and families.

If you are a parent of a school-age child in America, you’re probably familiar with Chromebooks.

The stripped-down laptops with Google software took schools by storm starting in the 2010s largely because they were relatively no fuss and affordable, compared with clunky school computers of old. They are fairly simple for students to use, and teachers and school administrators can control what children can and can’t do with them.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Chromebooks were already among the most important new technologies of the past decade. When many schools shifted classes online in 2020, there was a mad dash by districts and families to buy more of them. That made Chromebooks, like many consumer electronics, hard to find at times that year and early last year.

Sales are now collapsing. The number of Chromebooks sold in April, May and June was half the number sold in the same period of 2021, according to the research firm IDC. It estimated in May that about 25 million Chromebooks would be sold this year, the majority to schools, a 32 percent decline from 2021. That’s still much higher than Chromebook sales before the pandemic.

This is part of a general trend in electronics. People who urgently bought a new laptop, robot vacuum cleaner or TV set in 2020 or 2021 now don’t need to buy another one for a while. Consumer electronics analysts also told me that some manufacturers became giddy and ordered a bunch more Chromebooks from factories or decided to make more models.

Then schools resumed in-person classes. Districts and parents who had bought computers recently didn’t need many more. In some cases, companies have been stuck with far more Chromebooks than they can sell. This is the kiddie-laptop version of the phenomenon that has bedeviled Peloton and Amazon: assuming that pandemic-related buying habits would last.

This has made for a confusing time for people hunting for Chromebooks. You might find some models on sale or none at all.

Poking around online this week, I saw back-to-school discounts of up to 50 percent for some Chromebooks. But a top pick from Wirecutter, the product recommendation service from The New York Times, was not available from the manufacturer’s website when I checked on Thursday.

Kimber Streams, the senior staff writer behind Wirecutter’s Chromebooks guide, told me that, even with fewer people buying the devices now, the better options might be scarce. As with Windows personal computers, the quality of Chromebooks varies widely, from great to garbage. Kimber’s piece has advice if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Whatever the direction of their sales, Chromebooks reflect a sea change in American schools. As with many businesses and services, there may be no turning back entirely from the digital adaptations that schools and families made by necessity: Many people likehaving the option to meet with a doctor by webcam, work from home if a child is sick and order groceries online.

And while Zoom school is mostly gone, more families now expect to communicate digitally with schools; teachers are sticking with at least some online resources for classes; and even younger children are accessing class work on computers. Technology was already a given at many schools, but it has become even more important. We’re also more mindful of the need to be prepared for future emergencies that might force people to work or attend school from home.

Jitesh Ubrani, a research manager at IDC, said that many U.S. schools before the pandemic were moving toward a goal of having one computer for each student.

“The pandemic really accelerated that, and now many schools are at that level or nearly there,” Ubrani said. “And I don’t think they’re going to shy away from that.” He added that schools in parts of Europe are less keen than those in America to have computers in classrooms.

I’ll let you decide if it’s progress or a shame that 6-year-olds are logging on for class and that parents sometimes have to check a bunch of apps to keep up with what’s happening in school. But with children streaming back to classes, digital education habits born out of the pandemic do seem to be having lasting impact.

Before we go …

  • How audio snippets go viral on TikTok: Charlotte Shane has a fun piece in The New York Times Magazine about how clips of sounds are reused and remixed on TikTok in surprising ways. One man’s take on his inner dialogue — Nobody’s gonna know. They’re gonna know — transformed into an audio meme used in TikTok videos around the world.

  • Can device factories go global? Nearly all of Apple’s devices are manufactured in China, an uncomfortable reality as relations between China and the U.S. worsen and supply-chain snags continue. Nikkei Asia reported that Apple is discussing manufacturing Apple Watch devices and MacBook computers in Vietnam.

  • Finding community by skateboard: Sebastian Aniciete, a college student from the Bay Area, wrote in The Verge that forming a Facebook group for enthusiasts of electric skateboards and other personal electric vehicles became a gateway to exploring new neighborhoods and make friends.

Hugs to this

You should read this article about two giant pigs named Pee-Wee and Purdy Boy who were the lone entrants in the Iowa State Fair’s Big Boar contest. It was tricky to fatten pigs when inflation made feed more expensive. Pee-Wee loved stale doughnuts and milk.

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