New numbers show 2020 was the first year that Chromebooks outsold Macs, posting impressive market share gains at the expense of Windows. Computers powered by Google’s Chrome OS have outsold Apple’s computers in individual quarters before, but 2020 was the first full year that Chrome OS took second place. Microsoft’s Windows still retained majority market share, but also took a big hit as both Chrome OS and macOS gained share.
The milestone is based on numbers provided by IDC, which doesn’t typically break out sales based on device operating system. But when we went looking to see how the pandemic may have impacted the PC market, IDC analyst Mike Shirer confirmed the findings to GeekWire. (We also contacted Gartner but that firm does not include Chromebooks in its traditional PC market results.)
This is a big win for Google and a warning for both Apple and Microsoft. It also signals to app and game developers that Chrome OS can no longer be ignored. Frankly, any business that provides a product or service over the internet should be setting aside resources to ensure the Chrome OS experience is comparable to Windows and macOS.
Breaking down the numbers
In Q1 2020, Apple and Google were neck-and-neck: Windows grabbed 87.5% market share, macOS took 5.8%, and Chrome OS captured 5.3%. But in Q2 2020, Windows fell to 81.7%, macOS grew to 7.6%, and Chrome OS jumped to 10.0%.
Q3 2020 and Q4 2020 confirmed the trend: Windows dropped further to 78.9% for Q3 and then 76.7% for Q4; macOS grew to 8.4% for Q3 and then fell back to 7.7% for Q4, while Chrome OS had 11.5% for Q3 and then 14.4% share for Q4. The Q4 results are particularly notable as the fourth quarter tends to be the biggest for PC shipments. While macOS widened its lead over Chrome OS in Q4 2019, Chrome OS came roaring back in Q4 2020.
Here is the year-over-year breakdown (IDC’s numbers include desktops, laptops, and workstations):
- Windows: Down 4.9 points, from 85.4% in 2019 to 80.5% in 2020
- Chrome OS: Up 4.4 points, from 6.4% in 2019 to 10.8% in 2020
- macOS: Up 0.8 points, from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.5% in 2020
Three quarters in a row of Chrome OS above macOS makes a trend. It’s safe to say that Chromebooks from PC makers like Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo now outsell Apple’s range of desktop Macs and laptop MacBooks. That said, 2020 was not a typical year.
The pandemic’s impact
After years of bad news, PC shipments saw growth in 2019, only to have the coronavirus pandemic cut the celebration short in Q1 2020. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China (the world’s largest supplier of PCs), PC supply took a hit, leading to the sharpest decline in years. Then in Q2 2020 and the rest of the year, supply constraints were addressed and the rise in work from home and distance learning drove PC demand from businesses and consumers alike.
The pandemic is an accelerant of tech trends. Chrome OS has been growing over the past few years so it’s not shocking that it is growing even faster in 2020. The question is: Will that growth continue, and will it come at Windows’ expense? While PC shipments are up across the board, it’s telling that macOS has also been gaining share while Windows fell below the 80% threshold for the first time in decades (in the past two quarters, though it was still above 80% for the year).
Chrome OS challenging Windows’ dominance of the low-cost laptop market is part of the bigger rebound of traditional PC sales, and part of the reason why Microsoft shifted Windows 10X to debut initially on single-screen devices.
Until the pandemic, Chrome OS’ success was largely limited to U.S. schools. Demand in 2020 appears to have expanded beyond that small but critical part of the U.S. PC market. Over the coming months, we’ll find out whether Chrome OS’ gains are limited to U.S. schools, the U.S. at large, schools worldwide, or whether Google’s low-cost laptops are making inroads everywhere. Expect Apple and Microsoft to adjust their respective strategies accordingly.