I never thought a true competitor to Microsoft’s Windows OS would arrive during my lifetime.  Other than Apple’s Mac OS, Microsoft has enjoyed a relatively competition-free environment for the last few decades and has become the standard platform across the PC market.  But, after a slow start, Google’s Chrome OS is gaining momentum thanks to the adoption of Chromebooks, laptops based on Google’s new operating system.  The affordable notebooks could reshape the computing industry by giving consumers an easy way to access the web, where most of their time is already spent.

Retailers have finally taken an interest in Chromebooks.  Best Buy was the first retailer to offer Chromebooks in stores and Walmart recently added Acer’s C710 model to its shelves.  Over the last month, the office stores have also begun adding Chrome-based laptops to their assortment.  Staples has advertised Chromebooks for the last 6 weeks in a row and OfficeMax recently added both HP and Samsung configurations.  Although Office Depot has not yet added any Chrome-based laptops, Google included the retailer in its announcement about the expanded availability of Chromebooks, indicating that Office Depot will likely add three different models in the coming weeks.  Chromebooks are also available at smaller regional retailers like Fry’s Electronics, MicroCenter, and TigerDirect, giving the devices even more visibility at a time when Microsoft is reeling from its lackluster Windows 8 launch.

Besides Google’s own Chromebook Pixel, nearly all Chromebooks are priced below $300, which is sure to spur sales during the back-to-school season.  As more retailers carry Chromebooks and sales inevitably increase, more manufacturers are expected to enter the market.  Acer, Samsung, and HP already offer retail models and Lenovo has a Chromebook available to its channel partners.  Asus will reportedly launch its own Chromebook this year and Toshiba is expected to enter the market next year (if not the end of this year).  Dell is currently the only major manufacturer that has not (openly) shown interest in the market, but likely cannot afford to wait much longer.

The title of yesterday’s article about Acer’s future plans in the Wall Street Journal says it all: “Acer to Expand Android, Chromebook Offerings: PC Maker Plans Fewer Windows Products as Demand Slows.”  Acer claims that Chromebooks made up 3% of its PC shipments in Q2, which followed a report by Gartner that showed Chromebooks claiming 4% to 5% of the US market in Q1.  Chromebooks have proven to be a good fit for education and appear to be filling the void left by netbooks in the entry-level retail space.  Google’s Chrome OS has rapidly become a viable alternative for users with simple needs and the company’s reach, ecosystem, and willingness to disrupt markets likely should make Microsoft nervous.  Look at how quickly Google’s Chrome browser was able to surpass Microsoft’s Internet Explorer:

Here’s to hoping that Chromebooks spur innovation and push Microsoft and manufacturers to innovate, while not ignoring customers with simpler needs.