Android Intelligence Analysis

Fuchsia and the future of Android

Google's mysterious new operating system is assumed to be a replacement for Android and Chrome OS — but what if the situation isn't actually so simple?

Fuchsia Android
JR Raphael, IDG

If you follow a lot of Android news, odds are, you've heard at least something about a mysterious Google project known as Fuchsia. And odds are, you're at least somewhat confused about what it actually is and what it's intended to do.

Let me assure you: You aren't alone.

Fuchsia, for the uninitiated, is an "early-stage experimental project" within Google. It's been under development since at least 2017 — and it's open source, which means anyone can peek at the code and even install the software on certain devices. (Pro tip: You can actually check it out from your browser right now, too, thanks to an independently created Fuchsia web demo. Fair warning, though: There's really not much to it.)

Fuchsia Google Google

Fuchsia, in its current bare-bones form

Google describes Fuchsia as "a new operating system" designed for "modern phones and modern personal computers with fast processors, non-trivial amounts of RAM with arbitrary peripherals doing open-ended computation." Right.

That oh-so-vivid depiction aside, there's very little in the way of solid info about what this whole thing is all about or why it's being developed. And in the absence of such firm information, what do we get? Guesses, theories, and other unsubstantiated assumptions that then get repeated to the point where people assume they're facts.

The most common such conclusion is that Fuchsia is meant to become a unified replacement for both Android and Chrome OS — a single new Google operating system that'd stretch across laptops and phones and provide a consistent and more closely controlled framework for future devices. Unlike Android and Chrome OS, Fuchsia is based not on Linux but on Google's own custom foundation — one that could, in theory, lead to simpler and more streamlined system upgrades (something we all know is a constant struggle with Android in particular).

So is that actually true? Well, maybe. Anything's certainly possible; after all, this is Google. The company has pulled off its share of eyebrow-raising flip-flops and crazy-seeming moves before. And outside of Google itself, no one actually knows what the plan is for Fuchsia or what Google hopes it'll achieve.

But particularly right now, following what we saw at Google I/O and in the weeks surrounding it, I think flat-out accepting the notion that Fuchsia is destined to replace Android and Chrome OS as a foregone conclusion — as so many people seem to be doing these days — is a mistake.

Allow me to elaborate on a few critical points — and stick with me, because each part of this is an important piece of a puzzle we're assembling.

1. Android and Chrome OS are massive brands and ecosystems — with massive investments, adoption, and value

Plain and simple, brands like these don't spring up overnight. Android has become a global phenomenon in the 10 years since its inception — and Chrome OS, while sometimes still ignorantly dismissed as irrelevant, is rapidly expanding to become an all-purpose platform with uniquely powerful possibilities. It's also hugely significant in education, accounting for 60% of all education-based device shipments in the U.S. last year (compared to 22% for Windows and a combined 17% for MacOS and iOS together).

Numerous manufacturers around the world are heavily invested in both brands, meanwhile — and in an even bigger-picture and longer-term sense, Google has worked hard to plant metaphorical seeds and get countless students committed to Chromebooks early on with the goal of turning them into life-long users.

These aren't disposable brands or ecosystems, in other words — far from it. The investments involved and familiarity achieved are immense and not easily replicable. Even as Google shifts its focus increasingly to the notion of "Google" serving as the unifying thread between its products, Android and Chrome OS are worth a lot — to Google and to other associated players. And while Google does have a history of making puzzling pivots, the idea of it doing something as drastic as dumping Android and Chrome OS altogether is a difficult move to imagine.

2. Google only seems to be ramping up its commitment to both platforms as of late

While the popular narrative of the moment suggests the first Fuchsia devices could show up as soon as this fall or early the following year, Google is continuing to push forward with Android and Chrome OS in ways that don't seem to line up with such a rapidly approaching shift.

I'm not just talking about the typical OS version updates; I'm talking about broader moves like the ongoing alignment of Android and Chrome OS — something to which substantial resources are being devoted — and the accompanying push for developers to embrace that two-for-one model.

To wit: Google is in the midst of bringing full support for Linux apps to Chromebooks, in large part to allow developers to run cross-platform coding tools and encourage them to create Android apps optimized for Chromebooks as well as for regular Android devices. The company also just added a Chrome OS emulator to its Android Studio development tool to further that goal and encourage developers to work with Chromebooks in mind, even if they don't have a Chrome OS device present for testing.

Think, too, about all the work going on right now to restructure Android in a way that makes it easier for device-makers to process OS updates. It may not be the magic answer some are hoping it'll be, but it's a huge investment in rejiggering the very core of the Android operating system — which seems like a strange thing to bother doing if Android is set to be abandoned in a year or so.

Then there's the public presentation. At this year's I/O event, the Android section of the keynote kicked off with an elaborate video that touted Android as being "the most popular mobile operating system in the world." The introduction revolved around the theme of Android being open and ended with a quote that was presented on the screen and read aloud:

If you believe in openness, if you believe in choice, if you believe in innovation from everyone, then welcome to Android.

Shortly thereafter, Android Engineering VP Dave Burke took the stage and talked about Google's original goal with Android: "to build a mobile platform that was free and open to everyone" — "and today," he went on, "that idea is thriving."

Again, it's tough to reconcile the choice to make such a spirited and prominently placed presentation with the notion that this is a platform on the brink of being abandoned. Something about that just doesn't add up.

3. Fuchsia in context: a more nuanced possibility

In thinking about Fuchsia and its possible implications, we have to consider the context of Google and its tendency to "explore" and "experiment."

For years, we heard about the certainty that Google was "merging" Android and Chrome OS. The reality turned out to be the more nuanced alignment of the two platforms that we're still seeing take shape today. More recently, the rumors revolved around something known as Andromeda — an internal Google project that would have brought Android and Chrome OS together into a single new platform designed to run across all forms of devices. At one point, we even had a specific date for its big reveal — one that, of course, never amounted to anything.

Crucially, the fact that none of that stuff came to fruition doesn't mean there were no nuggets of reality involved. More likely, it means Google explored and experimented with some concepts internally but ultimately ended up abandoning them or pivoting in different directions.

Speaking of pivoting, when addressing a question about Fuchsia during a session at last year's I/O event, Burke made an interesting remark: "Like lots of early stage projects, it's gonna probably pivot and morph."

So perhaps with Fuchsia, a more nuanced implementation could also end up surfacing — something in which the effort's ideas and advances are utilized but done so in a way that doesn't necessarily replace Android or Chrome OS, as the current narrative implies. Perhaps Fuchsia could instead end up becoming a new underlying structure for one or both platforms while still leaving the original outward-facing identities intact.

If we really want to read some tea leaves, in fact, there's actually some evidence that suggests such an outcome might not be so far-fetched. Google's open-source repository for Fushia includes a tantalizing bit of text that seems almost like a riddle: "Pink + Purple == Fuchsia (a new Operating System)"

On Twitter, Fuchsia Engineering Director Chris McKillop once casually noted that "pink" was a reference to the Taligent project — a failed 90s-era effort by Apple to replace MacOS with a newer alternative. Per Wikipedia (the emphasis here is mine):

Pink was to be a completely new object-oriented OS implemented in C++ on top of a new microkernel, running a new GUI [graphical user interface] that nevertheless looked and felt like the existing Mac. In addition to running programs written for Pink, the system was to be capable of running existing Mac OS programs.

As for "purple," one needn't stretch much to imagine it's a reference to Project Purple, the codename for the original Apple iPhone. McKillop himself was a member of the team that worked on that device, and his aforementioned Twitter conversation was with an engineer who also worked at Apple during that same period. In the thread, that engineer asked McKillop if "the purple in 'pink + purple'" was "the purple we know" — to which McKillop responded "yes."

Now, again, we're reading tea leaves here — but the fact that the slogan posted within Google's Fuchsia code repository appears to reference the combination of a pivotal smartphone product and an effort to replace a long-existing OS with a more modern one that'd look and feel like the original and support the same set of applications sure seems somewhat significant.

Maybe, just maybe, Fuchsia could become a part of Android and/or Chrome OS without actually replacing them. Maybe it could be integrated into the operating systems in a manner that keeps their brands, ecosystems, and even appearances in place. Maybe Fuchsia could come into our lives without much of any disruption — and without the vast majority of users even realizing anything had changed.

I sure as hell can't say for sure. What I can say, though, is that blindly accepting the notion that this mysterious experimental effort is going to replace Google's two biggest platforms seems ill-advised. We simply don't know the specifics — and as we've been reminded plenty of times before, things are rarely as black and white as they initially appear.

Even with a concept as bold as Fuchsia, the far less dramatic shades of gray may end up being the most important hues of all.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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