Android, Chrome OS, and the future of Google's platforms

Android and Chrome OS are destined to come together -- but not necessarily in the way you might think.

Android, Chrome OS
Paul Wilcox/Google+

Google's Chrome OS is known for being a dead-simple platform with a specific and limited focus -- but all signs suggest that's about to change.

Google appears to be on the brink of revamping Chrome OS to broaden its appeal and give it a whole new kind of life. The evolution is happening on a few different fronts, many of which we've seen the beginnings of in bits and pieces already. Soon, though, the big picture should start to become clear.

Shattering the cloud-centric ceiling

First, let's set the stage for where Chrome OS is now and why it might need to expand.

In its current state, Chrome OS is designed for people who live primarily in the cloud. If you spend most of your time using the Web and Web-centric services -- whether it's reading news stories, surfing social media, or using services like Gmail and Google Docs -- then Chrome OS probably makes a lot of sense for you. It might even make things easier than what you're used to with a traditional PC setup, thanks to the lack of hassles like time-consuming software upgrades, complicated drivers, virus worries, and the inevitable slowdown that always seems to happen after you've owned a PC for a few months.

But Chrome OS has a firm boundary to its usefulness: While the platform has come a long way from where it started -- with the development of a full-fledged desktop environment and (despite what you may have heard) everything necessary for functional offline use -- the very nature of the software means it can't run traditional local PC programs. And for some people, that makes a Chromebook difficult or even impossible to consider as a primary computer.

Folks who rely on lots of specific local programs -- heavy-duty video editing software, for instance, or resource-intensive games -- are probably never going to be won over by Chrome OS. That kind of computing just isn't what the platform is designed to do. But with a little bit of tweaking, Google can make the platform attractive to a much more common type of user -- the person who's almost able to live with Chrome OS now but is held back by a few glaring holes. And that seems to be exactly what Google is hoping to accomplish.

I'm one of those users. I primarily use Web-centric services -- Google Docs for word processing, Google Sheets for spreadsheet work, Drive and Dropbox for most of my file storage, Gmail for email, and so on -- and consequently, my workflow is almost identical whether I'm using the Windows desktop in my office or the Chromebook Pixel that serves as my sole laptop for travel and any work away from my desk.

As I recently mused on Twitter, I increasingly resent having to futz with all the headaches of Windows and wish I could convert exclusively to Chrome OS. And I almost can. There are literally just two things I'd need in a Chromebook to send Windows to hell and go Chrome OS full-time:

  1. A robust image editor. You can certainly find some decent Web-centric apps for light photo editing -- and for casual use, those are more than sufficient -- but I do some pretty intensive photo editing these days and need something more along the lines of Photoshop or Lightroom.
  2. A word processor that can handle edits from Microsoft's Track Changes system. While I long ago converted to Docs for all my own writing work, I still have editors who send me Word documents with revisions -- and I need to be able to open and edit those files. Google's Revision History feature isn't compatible, and Microsoft's online office app bafflingly doesn't support Track Changes-style edits. I have no choice but to go to my Windows system when one of those files comes in. (And yes, I could use the Chrome Remote Desktop utility to do that on a Windows system via a Chromebook, but that's not solving the ultimate issue.)

It's people like me -- who want to use Chrome OS as a primary computing environment and need just a few basic gaps to be addressed -- that Google seems ready to serve. Many such people work in the enterprise or education sector, both of which have become core areas for Chrome OS's growth. And Android is one of the keys to giving those people what they need and bringing them into the Chrome OS world.

The Chrome OS-Android connection

We first heard about Android apps being able to run on Chromebooks at last year's Google I/O developers' conference. At the time, it struck me as a novel but silly idea -- one of those, "Okay, cool, but what's the point?" types of things. Turns out I was being shortsighted.

To be fair, the first Android apps converted for Chrome OS use were pretty inconsequential. But by all counts, they were ultimately just a test run -- Google dipping its toes in the waters to get a feel for how things could go.

This struck me as I was considering my Windows reliance conundrum. Once Android apps on Chrome OS become more widely available, I realized, I'd be able to pop open an Android-based tool like OfficeSuite 8 or Microsoft's own Office for Android app (which does support the Track Changes feature) for my occasional old-school editing needs.

As for image work, I'd probably be able to get by with one of the more fully featured editing apps available for Android, be it the official Adobe Lightroom app or a third-party alternative. And with Google and Adobe working on a system that allows you to use the full Photoshop app from a Chromebook as well -- by seamlessly streaming the app from a remote server, something that's still in a very limited testing phase at the moment -- that point may be moot before long, anyway.

Beyond my own personal requirements, running Android apps on Chromebooks could address other common Chrome OS limitations -- like the absence of a Skype client that works on the Web. For whatever reason, no such app exists despite the fact that (as far as I'm aware) it's 2015, and I've heard countless people list that as a nagging absence that keeps them from considering Chrome OS. If you could simply use the Skype Android app on your Chromebook, the problem would be solved.

Chrome OS Android Apps

The Vine Android app running on a Chromebook -- just a taste of what's possible

Make no mistake about it: Google is very aware of this. In discussions I had with Chrome OS team members leading up to the launch of this year's Chromebook Pixel, the Googlers talked about the company's increasing focus on providing support for what it calls "legacy applications" -- in other words, traditional PC programs -- within the Chrome OS environment. From the ability to edit Office files right within the browser to the remote-streaming program access and the arrival of more Android apps for the platform, Google seems laser-focused on filling in the gaps that keep people from adopting its cloud-centric OS.

"We're enabling more functionality by leveraging the work our Android developers have done," Adam Rodriguez, Google's project manager for the Pixel, told me at the time.

And speaking about the remote-streaming program access, Rodriguez noted that it's already providing users in the education field -- who are part of the early testing process -- with "access to a whole host of legacy applications" while requiring "zero software maintenance on their side." He also hinted that Photoshop may only be the tip of the iceberg.

"I think you can see how this will apply for a number of other legacy applications, too," he said.

Now consider this: Once Google has a large number of Android apps running on Chrome OS and a broader range of remote-streaming options available, what would stop the company from offering those same features within the regular Chrome browser on other operating systems? The in-browser document editing already exists in that manner. We've even seen Google toy with software that makes traditional operating systems look and act like Chrome OS in terms of their in-browser app launching abilities.

Could Chrome OS's continued expansion pave the way for Chrome the browser to become a universal Google "operating system" of sorts -- one that runs within other operating systems? Even now, with all of the browser's current apps and functionality, Google isn't too far from that reality. These types of additions could theoretically provide the fuel Google needs to get the rest of the way there.

As for Chrome OS itself, it's not just the third-party elements of the platform that are poised to evolve.

The future of Chrome OS

Ever since last year's I/O, Google has slowly but surely been bringing Chrome OS's user interface in line with the Material Design standards seen throughout Android and a growing number of Google Web applications. The biggest changes, however, may still be ahead.

Remember the Asus Chromebook Flip? Google announced the device without much fanfare in March as part of a blog post detailing a series of new upcoming low-cost Chromebooks. The company described it as a "premium, all-metal convertible" laptop with "a great keyboard and a touchscreen for immersive experiences like gaming and educational apps."

Asus Chromebook Flip

A press render of the Asus Chromebook Flip

Sources close to the situation suggest the announcement almost included much more detail. According to information made available to me, one early proposal involved discussing how the affordable touch device was built with Google's involvement specifically to take advantage of a number of new Chrome OS features, including a handwriting tool, a wider selection of Chrome-ready Android apps, and a new user interface.

Notably, Google launched a handwriting recognition tool for Android just over a month ago, which may or may not be related; there's also a standalone extension that enables handwriting recognition within Chrome as part of Google's "Input Tools" program.

As for the notion of a new UI, I don't know any specifics -- but Google-employed Chrome evangelist François Beaufort shared details last summer of an experimental "new kind of user experience" for Chrome OS called Athena. An image he posted at the time showed a window management utility that bears a strong resemblance to the new app-switching Overview interface we now know from the Android 5.0 Lollipop OS.

Chrome OS Athena François Beaufort/Google+

Whether something similar to that "experience" could become a part of Chrome OS is still to be seen, but it certainly appears some significant changes to the software could be on the way. A connection to the Chromebook Flip could make sense, since it's the first affordable touch-centric Chrome OS device Google's been closely (and openly) involved with developing. If there's one flaw with the current Chrome OS UI, it's that it isn't exactly optimized for touch-based interaction.

Remember, too, that the Pixel -- the first Chromebook to sport a touchscreen -- is viewed by Google not only as a premium laptop for power users but also as a place to introduce and fine-tune new technological concepts for the platform. During my talks with Chrome OS team members, Google's director of consumer hardware, Andrew Bowers, described it as a way to "develop and perfect technology" and then to roll that same technology "out to Chromebooks across the board."

He used the quality of the original Pixel's trackpad as an example, but it's logical that the Pixel's touch capabilities would also be something Google wants to see in more Chrome OS devices. If Android apps are going to play a pivotal role in Chrome OS's future, the operating system itself has to feel natural for touch as well as keyboard-based use.

With the Chromebook Flip set to debut sometime "this spring," odds are we'll find out more about all of this soon. Plans like these can always change, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if Google's 2015 I/O conference -- starting next Thursday in San Francisco -- holds some interesting developments in this domain.

The question everyone always asks is whether Google will somehow "merge" Android and Chrome OS into a single product at some point down the line -- but that question may be missing the mark. While anything's certainly possible, it appears the current strategy is to make the two platforms more consistent and connected and to use Android's strengths to bolster Chrome OS's capabilities. With a little help from its robot-themed friend, Chrome OS can evolve from a strictly Web-centric desktop OS into an all-purpose computing solution that delivers the best of both worlds.

Just for the hell of it, though, let's end on a crazy thought -- one I posed on Google+ last September. Consider:

If all Android apps can eventually run on Chrome OS -- and if Chrome OS evolves to look more like Android while Web apps and Android apps grow increasingly similar in design -- would you notice the difference between a phone running Android and a phone running Chrome?

Welcome to the Matrix, my friends. Whoaaa.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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