Android Intelligence Analysis

Fuchsia, Chrome OS, and the danger of black-and-white thinking

When it comes to Google's platforms, a short jaunt through history can provide a powerful reality check on the future.

Fuchsia, Chrome OS
JR Raphael, IDG

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Gather 'round, kiddos: Granpappy Writerman has a story to share. And stick with me through this, 'cause I swear it's building up to something important — something that may just shift how you think about one of tech's most titillating topics.

Way back in 2009, you see, an upstart little company known as Google came out with a strange-seeming operating system called Chrome OS. In the beginning, it was a humble effort — with nary more to its name than a maximized browser window locked down onto unremarkable hardware.

But Google saw promise in this fledgling project — and despite the broad dismissals and echoes of laughter surrounding it, the company stayed focused and worked tirelessly to refine the formula. There had to be a balance of simplicity and function that'd make a cloud-centric computing platform compelling, Google thought, and now was the time to find it.

Even as Chrome OS progressed past its elementary beginnings, myths and misconceptions continued to plague the platform. Those of us who covered Chromebooks closely heard it all: "It's just a browser in a box!" "You can't actually do anything on those Chromebooks." "They don't even work offline!" "What's the point?"

Perhaps the most persistent Chrome OS narrative, however, emerged a few years into the Chromebook's life: the idea that, okay, maybe there is something to this notion of a cloud-centric computing platform. But it isn't enough to stand on its own, and it doesn't make sense for Google to maintain both Chrome OS and Android when it could have a single platform that addresses both sides of the mobile computing spectrum.

For ages, then, we heard rumblings about the inevitable "merger" of Android and Chrome OS. It was treated as a foregone conclusion by some of tech's loudest and most prominent voices. What started out as a "practically guaranteed" prediction would morph into a "confirmed" reality when two major tech outlets reported that, yes, the long-standing rumors were true: Google was, in fact, set to combine Chrome OS and Android into a single all-purpose entity.

That was in October of 2015. Even after Google countered the report, questions remained — and the popular interpretation was that Google was simply playing word games and not really denying anything. A year later, fresh reports claimed that a combined Google operating system called "Andromeda" was set to show up and fulfill the prophecy by bringing Chrome-like features into Android and putting Chrome OS to its long overdue rest.

Of course, we all know what ended up happening — namely, none of that stuff. Rather than merging Android and Chrome OS in any binary way, Google stepped up its long-in-progress efforts to align the two platforms and make them more similar and symbiotic. That progression is still moving forward full-force today, and both platforms are thriving.

Why is crazy ol' Granpappy Writerman recounting all of this? I don't blame you for asking. (In all fairness, I am offering myself as Granpappy Writerman and pretending to be 95, so you aren't completely off-base.)

But, no: I'm bringing all this up because I've been feeling a serious sense of déjà vu as the discussion around "Fuchsia" — Google's secretive new operating system most folks now say is destined to replace both Android and Chrome OS — grows louder and more confident in its conclusions.

Fuchsia's been a source of mystery and speculation in the Android- and Chrome-watching community for a while now, but a report from Bloomberg last week turned the buzz into a roar. Fuchsia, Bloomberg revealed, was on its way to becoming the "single operating system" that'd run all of Google's own Pixel devices as well as products from the numerous manufacturers that currently rely on Android and Chrome OS. Unnamed insiders cited engineers as saying they hoped to have Fuchsia up and running on smart speakers within three years and then to "swap in their system" for Android within five.

On social media and in my weekly newsletter, I pointed out my recent musings on the subject — a column I wrote a couple months ago thinking through the whole Fuchsia thing and wondering if, in short, maybe things weren't necessarily as black and white as they appeared. Maybe there was a way that Fuchsia could play a role in Android and Chrome OS's future without outright replacing the two platforms. Maybe a more nuanced and sensible explanation could emerge — one that'd allow Google to reap the benefits of building a modern foundation for its platforms in a way that wouldn't upend two massively popular and profitable ecosystems and risk isolating countless companies, users, and organizations as a result.

"But practically everyone thinks Fuchsia is going to replace Android and Chrome OS," quite a few people pointed out to me. "Practically everyone is writing about it and talking about it as if it were a sure thing. Sources familiar with the effort say it's going to happen. If most of the internet is acting like it's a foregone conclusion, surely it must be — right?"

And that, dear Prudence, is exactly why I dragged you through that winding merger memoir a moment ago. For the longest time, it seemed so obvious that Android and Chrome OS were going to be combined. Practically everyone wrote about it and talked about it as if it were a sure thing. Sources familiar with the effort said it was going to happen. Most of the internet acted like it was a foregone conclusion.

And you know what? I don't doubt for a second that any of the reporting back then was accurate. Google probably was thinking about and working through a variety of different possibilities for its two main platforms at varying points over the course of that saga. But things can and frequently do change — and shades of gray that aren't immediately apparent based on an engineer's passing remarks can end up being surprisingly significant in the end.

Look, I'm no prophet. I'm just a guy who occasionally calls himself Granpappy and enjoys thinking through things with a healthy dose of logic, skepticism, and perspective. And I can't help but notice the parallels between the situation we're seeing now with Fuchsia and the situation we watched play out with Android and Chrome OS before.

In other words: I sure as hell can't say what Google is or isn't planning here. From the sounds of it, even Google itself doesn't entirely know at this point. Once again, anything's certainly possible.

But maybe, just maybe, jumping to conclusions too soon is ill-advised. Maybe, just maybe, treating unofficial and tentative info as fact can backfire. Maybe, just maybe, we'd be better off viewing Fuchsia for what it is: an under-development software project whose fate seems anything but certain and whose ultimate purpose and implementation could pivot in any number of ways.

Regardless of how this whole thing ends up playing out, such a cautious approach can only be a positive way to proceed. After all, jumping to conclusions can be exhilarating — but when you're leaping toward a moving target, it's anyone's guess if you'll land in the right place.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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