advertisement
advertisement

Chrome OS did lots of growing up in its first decade—and there’s more to come

Google’s operating system started out simple and has become ever more ambitious. Now the company is thinking about how to streamline the experience.

Chrome OS did lots of growing up in its first decade—and there’s more to come
[Images: Smith Collection/Gado / Contributor/Getty Images; Art-Digital-Illustration/iStock]
advertisement
advertisement
advertisement

It’s downright astounding how much difference a decade can make.

advertisement
advertisement

In May 2011, Google’s defiantly minimalist new computing platform—a little something the company called Chrome OS—shipped to consumers for the first time, on laptops from Samsung and Acer. That was the culmination of a journey that began when Google unveiled Chrome OS in the summer of 2009 and continued with an experimental prototype called the Cr-48 in December 2010.

It’s easy to forget now, but Chrome OS got its name because at the beginning, it was quite literally the Chrome operating system. The earliest versions of Chrome OS revolved entirely around the browser, with a deliberate omission of any traditional operating system elements.

And boy, were those early versions jarring to use. When you signed into the original Chrome OS system on the decidedly understated CR-48 laptop, which was provided to a small pool of journalists and testers, all you were greeted with was a full-screen Chrome browser window. There was no desktop, no taskbar, and not much of anything else in sight. Heck, you couldn’t even close the browser window, as there was nothing beneath it. It was “quite a different type of computing environment,” as I put it in my own first impressions, and it felt “very foreign” to use.

advertisement

In 2010, Google’s experimental CR-48 was the first Chromebook—but you couldn’t buy it. [Photo: courtesy of Google]
Unusual as the arrangement may have seemed, you’d better believe it was that way by design. In its initial introduction of Chrome OS, Google described the software as “a natural extension of Google Chrome”—with an interface that was “minimal to stay out of your way.” The Chromebook was meant to be a pure, unadulterated window to the web—no apps, no distractions, and no typical computing hassles to slow your tab-based wandering down.

Power up a Chromebook today, and you’d hardly even know it’s an evolution of the same platform. The Chrome OS of 2021 has a traditional-looking desktop, a MacOS-reminiscent taskbar, and an Android-inspired app launcher area. It features advanced operating system elements such as virtual desktops, multitasking tools, and a level of native integration with Google Assistant no other desktop platform can match. Oh, and as for those once-blasphemous apps? A Chromebook today supports a dizzying array of different program types—regular web apps, packaged progressive web apps, Android apps, Linux apps, and now even Windows apps, in certain enterprise configurations.

It’s practically unrecognizable—and it’s a far cry from the barebones “browser in a box” mindset Chrome OS was once criticized for delivering. Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan, to say the very least. Yet if you ask Google, the happy accident of the Chromebook’s evolution couldn’t have played out any better. And 10 years in, the company promises the platform’s metamorphosis is far from finished. The company is sharing details on some new features—and talking in broader strokes about its most important long-term goals for Chrome OS.

advertisement

Google’s Chrome OS climb

John Solomon knows his way around an operating system. Solomon—now the VP and GM of Chrome OS at Google—has a history as an executive at both Apple and HP. He came to Google in 2018 to oversee Chrome OS specifically because he wanted to help steer the once-humble Chromebook toward its increasingly ambitious future.

“The web has come a tremendously long way since we first started this,” Solomon says. “What you’ve seen over the last 10 years is a tremendous evolution and a constant tension that we have internally, a very productive tension, of staying true to what differentiates a Chromebook and yet at the same time bringing in new capabilities.”

Education remains the platform’s ‘anchor tenant,’ with school-related sales making up around 65 to 70% of all Chromebook purchases.

In Solomon’s eyes, the almost ironic-seeming shift from having a platform built around minimalism and a lack of any real apps to having that same platform become exceptionally maximalist, with countless flourishes and app-type options, doesn’t represent a failure of the original vision. Rather, it represents a willingness within Google to adapt—and to recognize that its original web-centric concept was maybe just a teensy bit ahead of its time.

advertisement

That’s not to say that the Chromebook didn’t find its place pretty early on. Almost right out of the gate, the education market embraced the Chrome OS model—as the software’s inherent simplicity and built-in security proved to be a perfect match for use in schools. At this point, Solomon says education remains the platform’s “anchor tenant,” with school-related sales making up around 65 to 70% of all Chromebook purchases. Another 20% or so is taken up by regular consumer buyers, by his estimation, and the final 10% revolves around business use.

When you consider that Chromebooks represented nearly 27% of all U.S. computer sales in 2020, according to IDC—more than double the 13% represented by Apple’s various Mac computers in that same period—it quickly becomes clear that Chrome OS is no longer the niche-level footnote many pundits long painted it to be.

And when you consider how Google is increasingly working to connect Chrome OS to Android—the world’s dominant mobile operating system—it’s hard not to wonder how much higher those figures could climb.

advertisement

Two platforms, one vision

The relationship between Chrome OS and Android has been apparent from day one—but early on, the co-existence of Google’s two platforms wasn’t exactly interpreted as an advantage.

Google tried to head off any misconceptions about the platforms’ separate but overlapping roles in its initial Chrome OS introduction. The company devoted an entire paragraph of its announcement to that subject, in fact:

Google Chrome OS is a new project, separate from Android. Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks. Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems. While there are areas where Google Chrome OS and Android overlap, we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone, including Google.

Still, in the beginning, reviews consistently questioned the need for Chrome OS’s existence—and for a long time, the consensus among most tech reviewers seemed to be that it was all but inevitable that Google would either kill the platform off entirely or somehow merge it into Android. In 2015, reports flat-out stated that such a merger was imminent, with the Chrome elements of the software set to be “folded into Android” and a new combined operating system to be revealed within the next year.

advertisement

That didn’t end up happening. Instead, what we saw play out was a far more nuanced alignment of the two platforms—one in which Chrome OS grew ever-more Android-like in style, design, and capability and in which Android also borrowed certain elements, such as the less disruptive system update model, from the Chromebook side.

Many of Google’s next steps for the Chrome OS platform revolve around that same “better together” theme. A new version of Chrome OS rolling out starting today will introduce a long-under-development Phone Hub feature that’ll let you see and interact with notifications from your Android phone on your Chromebook, without any complex configuration or clunky software required. You’ll also be able to silence your phone, adjust some of its settings, and see and access recent Chrome browser tabs you had open on the device right from your Chrome OS desktop.

The new Chrome OS Phone Hub feature lets you control and interact with your Android device from your Chromebook. [Image: courtesy of Google]
Carefully examined clues in Google’s open-source Chromium code suggest the system could eventually do even more—with some indications that full-fledged phone-mirroring that would let you get access to all the apps and files on your phone from your Chromebook could be in the cards. I asked Solomon’s colleague, Chrome OS Product Manager, Engineering, and UX Lead John Maletis, if and when such a capability might come online, and while he wouldn’t outright confirm any future plans, he did allow that what we’re seeing now is only scratching the surface.

advertisement

“You’re just seeing the beginning,” he says. “That little tiny Phone Hub real estate—I would put a big ‘Watch This Space’ on it, because there’s a lot of stuff we can and will do there.”

For now, in addition to this first iteration of the Phone Hub, Chromebooks will be gaining the ability to automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks you’ve previously used on your Android phone—without any effort on your part—and to wirelessly share files with Android devices as well as other Chromebooks.

Sharing files between a Chromebook and an Android phone will soon be as simple as a few quick clicks or taps. [Image: courtesy of Google]
Other incoming improvements include a new dedicated area for recent and important files within the Chromebook taskbar area and a very Googley-seeming “Quick Answers” feature that’ll automatically show you things like definitions, translations, and conversions when you right-click a word anywhere on the web.

advertisement

The new Chrome OS Tote feature brings a dedicated area for recent downloads, screenshots, and pinned files into the Chromebook taskbar. [Image: courtesy of Google]
Google’s also playing a bit of catch-up with this latest update and bringing a handful of still-missing traditional operating system elements into the Chrome OS environment—a native screen recording system, for instance, and an easily accessible clipboard history interface. The Chromebook virtual desktop system is getting a much-needed upgrade, too, with simpler desktop management tools as well as the ability to have your windows automatically restore themselves to the appropriate areas when you restart your computer.

Virtual desktops are getting much more capable with this latest Chrome OS update. [Image: courtesy of Google]
 But even with all of this progress, there’s still plenty of work to be done—and plenty of questions about where Chromebooks will fit into Google’s longer-term platform vision.

The Chromebook’s next challenges

For me, as someone who’s both used and covered Chrome OS from the very beginning, the big question in my mind is how all of these elements will ultimately come together—how Google will pull the incredibly capable but often disparate pieces of the current Chromebook setup together into a cohesive-feeling, intuitive whole.

advertisement

Right now, the reality is that Chromebooks can do an awful lot—the vast majority of what most typical computer users need, I’d contend—but figuring out which of Chrome OS’s many available tools is appropriate for any given purpose isn’t always easy. With the platform’s power and versatility has come a level of complication that’s at direct odds with the simplicity it initially set out to achieve. It’s a struggle I hear about from Chromebook owners constantly, and it’s a critical challenge for Google to address.

Let’s say, for instance, you wanted to use the task management app Todoist on your Chrome OS computer. You could simply go to the Todoist website or create a shortcut to that website on your desktop—or, if you know how to find it, you could use the Todoist progressive web app, which turns the Todoist website into a more neatly packaged, offline-capable program.

You could also install the similarly offline-capable Todoist Android app from the Google Play Store—or you could find the Todoist Chrome extension in the Chrome Web Store (which, like the Play Store, is preinstalled and serves as a de facto Chromebook app market).

advertisement

It frequently takes thought and research to figure out which version of a program is best for which purpose.

That’s the kind of confusion Chromebook users face daily with app selection, and countless similar examples exist. Even people who might not explicitly realize such overlapping options are available often end up stumbling onto the limitations that come up when they pick an app type that isn’t entirely optimal for performing the task at hand on a Chromebook. It frequently takes thought and research to figure out which version of a program is best for which purpose, and that’s a lot to ask of a typical computer owner.

Solomon and Maletis acknowledge this challenge. They say they’re working to address it, in a way that (ahem) a certain astute writer observed as a likely-seeming progression last April: by turning the Play Store into an all-purpose discovery tool where Chromebook owners can go to find whatever programs they need without having to think about the type of app they’ll end up getting.

Already, for instance, if you download Twitter from the Play Store on a Chromebook, you’ll end up with the progressive web app version of the program instead of the Android app version. There’s no big banner describing the distinction or anything like that; Google just determined that Twitter’s progressive web app made for a better Chromebook experience, so it made that the default download for that entry in that environment. (The only way to get Twitter’s Android app onto a Chromebook is to sidestep the Play Store altogether by sideloading the app, a technique meant more for developers and nerds than for mere mortals.)

advertisement

Google says we can expect to see more patterns along those same lines over time. Certain Play Store entries might even eventually take you to an app’s website or install a full-fledged Linux program. The key is that—once Google fully resolves this issue—you, as the user, shouldn’t have to know or think about about those kinds of differences. That’d be a sharp contrast from the way things work today, and the company seems keenly aware that it’s a desperately needed change.

“We have a very real responsibility to make sure that the user doesn’t have to care about the underlying technology,” Maletis says.

My final pressing question about the future of Chrome OS is simply how much of it there will be. In a familiar twist, the Android- and Chrome-OS-watching communities are once again filled with speculation that Google could be working to bring the two platforms together—this time by way of a mysterious underdeveloped Google operating system known as Fuchsia.

advertisement

Officially, Google says only that Fuchsia is an “open-source effort to create a production-grade operating system that prioritizes security, updatability, and performance” across a “broad range of devices.” But the vague nature of its ultimate purpose along with some eyebrow-raising bits of progress in its development—such as the recent move to allow the operating system to support both Android and Linux apps as native programs—raise some interesting questions about what, exactly, Google is actually up to with the effort.

Solomon declined to answer directly about if or how Fuchsia might one day replace or otherwise relate to Chrome OS (and there are certainly more nuanced, less black-and-white possibilities to consider), but he did offer up some broad thoughts on what Google hopes to accomplish as time wears on.

“There’s nothing we can say beyond the fact that we’re continually iterating on how to make the OS evolve and be the most scalable and secure and long-term OS,” he says. “We’re looking at ways to make sure we’re leveraging the best of Google to do that.”

More immediately, Google seems content in the knowledge that the web—and maybe also the world—has finally caught up to its decade-old vision for cloud-centric computing. Or maybe more accurately, its vision has evolved enough to meet the world halfway.

For more in-depth Chromebook contemplation, check out my Android Intelligence newsletter.