Google has canceled the next version of its Pixelbook laptop and disbanded the team responsible for building it. The device was well into development and expected to debut next year, according to a person familiar with the matter, but the project was cut as part of recent cost-cutting measures inside Google. Members of the team have been transferred to other places in the company.
As recently as a few months ago, Google planned to keep the Pixelbook going. Ahead of the annual I/O developer conference, Google’s head of hardware Rick Osterloh said The Verge that “we’re going to make Pixelbooks in the future.” But he also acknowledged that the Chromebook market has changed since 2017 when the original (and best) Pixelbook launched. “What’s nice about the category is that it’s matured,” Osterloh said. “You can expect them to last a long time.” One way Google might be thinking about the ChromeOS market is that it simply doesn’t need Google the way it once did.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, has said for months that he intends to slow hiring and cut some projects across the company. “In some cases, that means consolidating where investments overlap and streamlining processes,” he wrote in a July note. “In other cases, it means pausing development and reallocating resources to higher priority areas.” The Pixelbook team and the Pixelbook itself were victims of this consolidation and repositioning.
“Google does not share future product plans or personnel information; However, we are committed to building and supporting a portfolio of Google products that are innovative and useful for our users, said Laura Breen, Chief Communications Officer at Google. The Verge. “Regarding our staff, in times of changing priorities, we work to transition team members across units and services.”
Google’s hardware strategy, especially with the Pixel devices, has been both to make good products and to try to show other manufacturers how to do the same. It began investing in Pixel phones as a way to showcase what Google’s take on Android could look like. More recently, the company has dabbled in making smartwatches, with the Pixel Watch coming in a few weeks, and building an Android tablet to ship next year. Both of the latter devices are found in categories where most Android devices have failed. Google is trying to convince developers, manufacturers and customers that they can be good.
Similarly, Google spent nearly a decade trying to prove to the world that a high-end Chromebook was a good idea. With the first Chromebook Pixel in 2013, it deliberately went over the top, putting ChromeOS — an operating system Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt had said would be featured on “completely disposable” hardware — on a gorgeous device with a $1,300 price tag. Google never thought the Chromebook hardware should matter, but the hardware matters, and that’s why Google made the best hardware. Still, the Pixel and the later Pixelbook models were high-priced niche devices, and while Google isn’t breaking out Chromebook sales, it was clearly too expensive to make any real noise in the broader laptop market.
By 2017, when Google launched the Pixelbook, the case for ChromeOS had changed somewhat. No longer was it just a beautiful, useful laptop – it was also a convertible, flippable device that could be used as a tablet. Google even built a stylus, called the Pixelbook Pen, to accompany the device. The Pixelbook was Google’s attempt to combat the iPad and MacBook Air in a single product. It had Google Assistant built in, it could connect to a Pixel phone and use the data, and it could run Android apps. It was Google’s entire computer vision in a single body. (It also had one of the great laptop keyboards of all time.)
Since that device, Google has largely failed to recreate what made the Pixelbook great. It continued to chase and Chrome OS upgrade anything that looked like the future of computing: First, there was the disastrous Pixel Slate, a tablet with an attachable keyboard that looked a lot like the Microsoft Surface. Then there was the Pixelbook Go, a smaller and slightly cheaper version of the Pixelbook that, when it launched in 2019, just couldn’t keep up with the competition. “Comparable Chromebooks cost at least a hundred dollars less for similar features,” The Verge‘s Dieter Bohn wrote in his review of the device. “So with the Pixelbook Go, what are you paying for?”
In 2019, a strange thing had happened: Chromebooks were good! Indeed, Acer, Asus and others had started investing in non-disposable hardware for their ChromeOS devices. Lenovo had a Yoga Chromebook, and Dell and HP started selling Chromebooks across a wide range of prices and specifications. Chromebooks had gone from “the lousy but cheap alternative” to a genuine alternative to Windows. And most of these options were also significantly cheaper than some of Google’s Pixelbooks.
The devices have been particularly successful in education, but as Brian Lynch, an analyst at research firm Canalys, said last year, “Chromebooks are pretty much a mainstream computing product now.” There are great Chromebooks available in all shapes and sizes: you can buy flip Chromebooks, foldable Chromebooks, detachable Chromebooks, Chromebooks with ThinkPad-style track points. Even the high-end market has become competitive, with devices like the Acer Chromebook Spin 713 and Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 bringing some of Google’s design prowess to the space.
In the early days of the pandemic, when students needed to attend school from home, Chromebooks flourished. ChromeOS devices outsold Apple’s Macs for the first time, according to data from research firm IDC. And Canalys said Chromebooks grew 275 percent between the first quarter of 2020 and the same period in 2021. But as the PC market has slowed after a huge early pandemic boost, ChromeOS has fallen more than most: Research firm Gartner predicted Chromebooks will decline throughout 30 percent in 2022.
Meanwhile, Google hasn’t shipped a new laptop in nearly three years, although the Pixelbook Go is still for sale in the company’s store. In recent months, some have speculated that Google’s Tensor chip could be a reason for the company to reinvest in the space, looking for ways to bring its AI prowess to ChromeOS and laptops — and to solve the Android compatibility problem once and for all everyone.
Going forward, it’s clear that the company is focusing where it believes the Android ecosystem needs it: smartwatches and tablets. It’s also possible that after years of trying to make luxury, cutting-edge Chromebooks happen, the company has realized that schools and students will likely continue to be the best ChromeOS customers, and those customers will never pay Google’s prices.
To be fair, Google has a long history of giving up on projects before finally deciding to try them again – smartwatches and even Google Glass all come to mind, and remember three years ago when Google said that it was getting out of the tablet business to focus solely on laptops? — so Google may one day decide to help the Chromebook market again. But for now, the ChromeOS market is strong, and Google is no longer trying to move it forward.