Bye, bye Chrome OS. Don't let the laptop lid hit you when you finally shut down for good.
If the Wall Street Journal's anonymous sources are to be believed, Google plans to fold its browser-centric operating system into Android -- finally -- with the combined platform expected to launch in 2017. A few hours after the article was published, Google SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer, who is in charge of Chrome OS, seemed to refute the rumor, tweeting "There's a ton of momentum for Chromebooks and we are very committed to Chrome OS." However, what that "commitment" means and how long it lasts are certainly open to interpretation.
Losing Chrome OS would be a tough blow -- if you hate freedom and love to be treated like a toddler. Otherwise, this would be good news for most people and for the PC industry as a whole.
Since its launch in 2011, Chrome OS has been touted for its simplicity, because the operating system is easy to use and difficult to destroy. Anyone who's ever used a web browser can grab a Chromebook laptop and start surfing the web. Since there's almost no third-party software, very few settings and almost everything lives in the cloud, even the most aggressively stupid users will be unable to brick their devices or install malware.
That kind of usability sounds nice in theory. But a pop-up toaster is idiot proof too, but most of us don't want to eat charred bread for every single meal. I know several tech savvy folks who enjoy the simplicity of their Chromebooks, but there's always an application or two that they need to use and can only run on another platform.
By contrast, Google’s other OS, Android, is one of the most flexible platforms on the planet. If you own an Android phone or tablet, you can completely alter the UI with a new launcher, dig deep into the settings menu and make radical changes to the experience or install a slew of third-party apps that work well without a network connection. If you're brave (or foolhardy) enough, you can root your device and install a completely different version of the OS.
In some environments such as schools, you might want a locked-down laptop so that the users don't do things the institution doesn't want. You wouldn't want your fourth-grade students installing Minecraft or downloading viruses when they're supposed to be learning about the solar system on Space.com.
"The real question is whether Google will be able to replicate the unique benefits of Chrome OS on notebooks in the future," said Avi Greengart, research director for market intelligence firm Current Analysis. "Chromebooks require no maintenance, virtually no setup, and all settings and data are stored in the cloud. This is ideal for some vertical markets like education where today’s Android would not be as attractive."
However, as any corporate IT manager can confirm, you don't need a neutered operating system to limit user behavior. All you need is the ability to create limited user accounts and have an administrator create the policies. Any future version of Android that replaces Chrome OS should make it easy for institutions to decide what applications their users can and cannot run.
A Mouse-Friendly UI and Apps
We don't have any details about how a combined operating system would work, but WSJ says that the "new version of Android" will run software from the Google Play store, which has more than 1.2 million different apps. Compare that to the paltry selection of programs in the Chrome Web store, where most of the "apps" are just links to websites. I counted just 42 "desktop apps" (native programs that run offline and outside the browser) in the store when writing this and none of these was a major entertainment or productivity title.
"If the goal is simply to extend Android onto devices with keyboards and mice, not much [needs to change] on the OS side," Greengart said. "But a lot must be done to get developers to write apps that are designed for the new form factors and input methods."
Hopefully, Google will finally adjust the interface on Android so that it works well on large screen devices with mice and keyboards. To date, there have been a number of Android laptops and all-in-one PCs made, but the user experience is always sub-par because the stock UI doesn't support multiple windows or using the right click button. Samsung and LG have wisely enabled a split-screen mode on their Android devices, but Google still hasn't taken the hint. Hopefully the new Android will borrow heavily from Windows 10's Continuum feature and adjust the look and feel based on whether you are in tablet, laptop or phone mode.
Obviously, if Google really is merging the two operating systems, we're left with a lot of questions. I'd really like to know:
- What happens to all of today's Chromebooks in 2017? Will they get an upgrade to the new OS? If Google doesn't announce that these devices are "Android ready," the company risks hurting sales right now.
- How will the new OS get updates? Will device manufacturers have to modify and distribute the new code like they do today or will the company send updates from a central server like Microsoft does with Windows? We can all hope it's the latter.
- Will the new OS be available as a free download for existing PCs? If Google wants everyone to use its operating system, it should make the installer available to anyone who wants to install it. However, Google hasn't done that with previous versions of Android or Chrome OS. You can get either of those as an open source project, but not with Google apps and services.
But outside of those pressing issues, my biggest question is a rhetorical one: Why does Chrome OS even exist in the first place? The Android operating system is so popular that it has more than 1 billion users and so flexible that it powers more than 18,000 different gadgets from phones to tablets to TVs and even household appliances. But its parent hasn't shown complete confidence in it (until now?).
Google probably still prefers Chrome because it pushes most software into the cloud, which is where the search giant lives. Chrome’s lack of flexibility is an advantage for the company, because it means that OEMs can't go inserting their own software, adding skins or removing services. There are several versions of Android, including Amazon's Fire OS, that have been modified so heavily that they don't even have Google's apps. You can’t say the same about Chrome.
However, most people outside of Google prefer the freedom to choose. Hardware vendors like having the ability to differentiate the user interface and innovate on top of Google's core OS, which is often years behind its partners in adding functionality. Developers like having the ability to create apps with deep ties to the operating system and users like having the freedom to decide on how they will use their devices and what devices they will use. The swan song for Chrome OS can't come soon enough.