Let me let you in on a little secret: Google is no ordinary software company.
Understatement of the century, I know, right? But it’s hard to talk about the ever-evolving intersection of Android and Chrome OS without first saying so.
I mean, think about it: For a little over a decade now, Google has been simultaneously developing and promoting two entirely separate but increasingly overlapping paths to discovering the best of its apps and services.
You know the deal: on the one hand, you have Android, the go-to platform for touch-enabled mobile products. And on the other, there’s Chrome OS – the once rudimentary computing framework that has evolved into a powerful, platform-defying operating system “Everything”.
For years, the purpose and path of each platform has been fairly easy to understand: Android is primarily for smartphones, while Chrome OS is for larger laptops, desktops, and the desktop experience. most optimal tablet supporting Android apps.
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But now, with Google renewing its focus on android as a tablet platform and cooking up all sorts of notions to improve the big-screen Android experience – many of which, quite rightly, take inspiration from Chrome OS – the picture suddenly gets murky.
I had the chance to chat with Alexander Kuscher, Google’s senior director of product management and head of its Chrome OS software efforts, about how the two platforms have evolved together and how they can continue to coexist even if they prepare to face each other. in the large tablet market.
Fair warning: unexpected revelations await.
Android and Chrome: two paths, two goals
Kuscher, of all people, knows a thing or two about the evolution of Chrome OS. He joined the Chrome OS team just as Google was preparing to launch the Cr-48 – the first Chromebook prototype sent out to testers (and, ahem, lowly tech reviewers) ahead of the platform’s official release.
In those early days, Chrome OS was little more than a full-screen browser — no desktop, no wallpaper, and pretty much nothing but the web.
This first intro video says it all:
Looking back, Kuscher feels like he and his colleagues were a bit ahead of their time in estimating what people were ready for in terms of a web-centric computing model.
“People want to have simplicity, but it should still be powerful,” he says.
And while he now admits that Google’s original vision for the platform may have been a little “too puristic”, he maintains that the starting point worked out for the best – because it gave gave Google a clear purpose and laid the foundation for many computing trends that we still see playing out today.
“I actually like that we put an anchor completely off to the side…and then kind of let it go. [ourselves] to be pulled a bit towards the middle,” he says. “I think you had to have that extreme.
This extreme is a far cry from the rich and versatile setup that Chrome OS offers today. The evolution of the touch-centric Chromebook experience seemed to align almost perfectly with Google’s tacit abandonment android as a tablet platform after the short-lived Honeycomb era of 2011.
But now that Android tablets are back in the picture as Google’s main focus, where does that leave Chrome OS? Will the push of the Chromebook as a tablet fade as Android once again takes center stage in this arena? How can the two competing forces coexist in a way that makes sense – both from Google’s perspective and from the perspective of tech-savvy humans who want to buy a tablet and don’t know what to think?
Kuscher says these questions are all perfectly reasonable. But he says Google already has an answer — an answer that actually spans two separate but equally important parts.
“The first objective is [to] Craft [the two platforms] work well together,” he says. “It should all look like it was done with one hand.
This is the alignment of Android and Chrome OS that we’ve seen take shape for almost eight years now – the ongoing “androidizing” of Chrome OS, as I like to call it, as well as the trend latest Chrome OS interface elements being brought over to the Android domain.
But beyond that, there’s a key point that Kuscher stresses in understanding how Android tablets and Chrome tablets can make sense alongside each other — and that’s what you’re aiming for. To do To do with the associated product.
In short, Android tablets are for “productive mobility,” as Kuscher describes it — with content consumption being the top priority and some more complex productivity being an occasional add-on.
Chromebook tablets, on the other hand, are the exact opposite: they’re meant for “mobile productivity,” with the active work being the main purpose and the more passive consumption being a nice side benefit.
Ideally, with all devices feeling cohesive and connected, purchasing decisions will focus primarily on which specific product is suitable for which purpose, all overlapping aside – and once said product is in hand, its owner won’t even think not much to what platform or operating system is involved.
“In fact, we are successful if we are completely gone [from the user’s perception]”, says Kuscher. “The more we do this in the background, the better.”
It certainly makes enough sense at first glance. But it also raises some other pressing questions.
The Android-Chrome-OS roadmap
Knowing that we’ve been down this road before, it’s impossible to talk about this topic – the overlap and alignment of Android and Chrome OS – without at least considering if and when the two platforms might one day converge completely.
To be clear, that’s not to say that Google would combine the code and create some kind of gigantic mutant computer behemoth (delightful of a visual as that can be). Instead, it’s just a question of whether, given the growing areas of overlap, it might ever be in the company’s interest to unify its strengths and reduce its development energy to a single general purpose platform of any kind.
For Kuscher, there are two layers to the question: There’s the technology layer, with the bits and bytes that power the related products. And then there’s the user experience layer, which is how ordinary land mammals like us actually experience devices on either side of the spectrum.
“The bottom part is a technology discussion,” says Kuscher.
And for the upper part? Well, get ready to put on your cryptic-response performer hat:
“What’s underneath doesn’t really matter to the user. You could have 10 different operating systems, one for each form factor, if you wanted. What matters is what you present to the user.”
That’s why, according to Kuscher, Android and Chrome OS have continued to become more cohesive and connected over the years. According to Google, the operating system is less important than the live — and more and more, it is about presenting experiences which are so similar that they look more like different branches of the same tree than completely separate forests.
All of this discussion has raised another meaty question in my mind — one I’ve been wondering about (and concocting creative workarounds to accomplish) for ages.
The Million Dollar Android-Chromebook Question
So there you have it: if the plan is for Android and Chrome OS to become more cohesive and aligned, when will we see a more customizable desktop, akin to an Android home screen for Chromebooks – one that lets you add widgets and… other sorts of useful information about your device’s default background?
The answer might surprise you.
“That’s a really interesting question that my team asks every release,” admits Kuscher.
And the idea of bringing more punch to the Chrome OS desktop is something the team is seriously considering, he tells me. But — a big but, and perhaps why the fruit of that thinking has been so slow to bloom — he and his team want to be extremely careful about how they approach any kind of Chromebook desktop extension.
“The important piece for me is [that] I want to make sure it serves a very specific purpose,” he says.
Desktops in general tend to turn into “junkyards”, as he rightly observes – a combination of cut-and-paste boards to store files, launchers to organize apps, and a zillion others. random uses in between.
All of these things are “a solution to a need,” says Kuscher, but he prefers to understand the underlying need and find a thoughtful way to meet it rather than just blindly following the status quo.
With that in mind, he wants to make sure that whatever the Chrome OS desktop becomes is carefully designed with a very specific purpose in mind. Dropping files into this space doesn’t seem like an optimal solution in the extraordinarily logical (and very Googley) view of Kuscher, for example — so instead his team came up with the concept of a catch-all, which is a recently added area of a Chromebook’s taskbar that shows screenshots and recent downloads and lets you pin important files for easy access from anywhere.
“It’s a different solution to the same problem,” he says.
So what role could the Chrome OS desktop play beyond just providing a nice space to look at your wallpaper? The answer comes from a familiar source — and if you’re like me, you’ll be glad to hear it:
The Chrome OS desktop could one day become a destination for widgets and other forms of ambient information. Yup – another welcome bit of Androidification from this side of the Google universe.
But don’t expect it to look like an Android clone. Without divulging too many details about the thinking around this (or even when we might see it start to take shape), Kuscher tells me one key thing about his longer-term plans for the Chromebook desktop: the software desktop doesn’t It won’t look exactly like any other platform, and it won’t allow that area of the interface to turn into the kind of cluttered all-purpose dumping ground we see on more traditional desktop operating systems.
Ultimately, it all comes down to Kuscher’s overarching goal with Chrome OS — one he’s had since the platform’s earliest days: simplicity. For every element of power added to the equation, he struggles to step back and think about how he and his team can maintain the simplicity that existed before.
It’s a moving target and Google doesn’t always get it right, but it’s absolutely something Kuscher tries to keep in the center of his mind incredibly busy.
“It’s the holy grail,” he says – “making really complex things really easy.”
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