Chrome OS

It's time to rethink the Chrome OS upgrade standard

Google's handling of Chrome OS upgrades has long been an asset for the platform — but now, it's starting to become a liability.

Chrome OS Upgrade Standard
Google/JR Raphael

I've never been one to shy away from calling out mobile tech injustices — especially when it comes to the realm of operating system upgrades. Well, gang, here we go again.

Now, hang on: This isn't another impassioned rant about Android upgrades. Nope; this time, we need to talk about Google's other mobile-tech platform — the one that's usually the subject of thickly ladled upgrade praise. Yes, oh yes, it's time to talk about the typically commendable Chrome OS.

First, some context: Chrome OS and Android may be increasingly alike on the outside, but when it comes to operating system upgrades, they couldn't be more different. With Android, y'see, device-makers are free to modify the OS in any way they see fit — and it's that very freedom that then results in those same companies being responsible for processing and sending out upgrades for their own devices instead of Google handling it for everyone.

With Chrome OS, on the other hand, Google maintains tight control of the software. The operating system is more or less always the same, no matter what type of device you're using or which company made it. Because of that, Google's able to manage OS upgrades directly for all devices and send them out itself. And suffice it to say, the difference that makes from our perspective — that of the multi-limbed mammals who purchase and rely on said devices — is dramatic.

You know the deal, right? On Android, if you aren't using one of Google's own Pixel phones, you've got virtually no guarantee of if or when any given upgrade will reach you. The wait often ends up being six months to a year, sometimes more, with virtually no communication along the way — and things are even less dependable if you're using (GASP!) last year's phone model. Sometimes, a phone-maker will leave you hanging for ages and then just decide not to bother giving you an upgrade at all, despite your phone still being in the standard two-year window for support. It's all quite lovely, to say the least.

On Chrome OS, no matter what kind of Chromebook you're carrying, you consistently get every single upgrade — be it a major version bump or a minor patch — within a matter of days of its release. You don't even think about it, in fact; the software just shows up without issue or interruption, often without even alerting you to its presence.

That setup has served Chrome OS well and helped it avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of its phone-based software sibling. Particularly for business folk, there's something to be said for knowing you can pick any Chromebook you like and then use it without having to worry about whether it'll always have the most up-to-date, secure, and effective software available. But now, eight years into Chromebooks' existence, the way we're using these devices has evolved. And it's high time for Google to evolve its stance on software upgrades accordingly.

Allow me to explain.

The Chrome OS upgrade equation

Despite the reliability and consistency with which they're delivered, operating system upgrades on Chrome OS have one significant and largely invisible limitation — and that's their expiration date.

It's a little-known and curiously (or maybe not-so-curiously) underpublicized fact: Every Chromebook, whether it costs $150 or $1,500, comes with an expiration date attached — a point at which it'll no longer receive software updates and thus won't be advisable to use. The lack of software updates on Chrome OS is arguably even more concerning than a lack of ongoing support on a more traditional computing platform, too — as it's not only the OS itself that isn't being kept up to date with important security and performance fixes; it's also the browser.

I mean, think about it: On a Chromebook, the browser — y'know, Chrome — is a core part of the actual operating system. And that means all the critical updates rolled out to it come packaged as part of an operating system update. That's a very different scenario than what you see on Windows, Mac, or Linux, where the browser is a standalone app that's updated independent of the operating system and regardless of how up to date or outdated the computer's software may be.

What that means, then, is that operating system updates on Chrome OS are especially significant — more so than on any other type of computer. And yet, Chromebooks tend to have the shortest shelf life of any computer out there when it comes to ongoing software support.

And here's what's especially crazy: It's damn-near impossible for any normal person to know how long a Chromebook will continue to receive software updates — because (a) that information isn't listed in any even remotely prominent place, (b) it's not based on when the Chromebook itself went on sale but rather on when the processor inside the system first appeared on the platform, and (c) the only place such info is listed is in an obscure help document no typical user would ever encounter (or even realize exists).

The way it works is this: Google promises to provide software updates to a Chromebook for six and a half years from the time the first Chrome OS device using its same chipset debuted. That means a brand new, high-end device like Acer's Chromebook 715 — which launched this month and sells for as high as $780 — is actually already down to four years and eight months of software support remaining if you buy it right now. Despite the fact that the device is brand new and a premium product, in other words, it's effectively already more than lost a quarter of its life in terms of the platform's maximum support window. Delightful, no?

It ultimately becomes up to you to be aware of all of this and then to perform some smart math to figure out a Chromebook's actual annual cost of ownership, based on its expiration date for support — and then to compare that to other options and figure out if it makes sense for you. But it shouldn't be so difficult. And the time for which a Chromebook remains supported and advisable to use shouldn't be so inconsistent — or so short.

The past and the future

Now, for a quick rewind: When Chrome OS first came out, the platform was focused exclusively on low-cost, almost made-to-be-disposable computers. Back then, Chrome OS was designed to be a dead-simple operating system that revolved almost entirely around the cloud and basic web services.

Suffice it to say, things have changed considerably since that time. Chromebooks these days are versatile, viable devices that run a variety of different apps — including desktop-caliber Linux apps and platform-expanding Android apps — and run the gamut from budget-level systems to high-end, luxury-level machines.

When you're paying $500 or sometimes even well over a thousand dollars for a computer, you shouldn't be worrying about whether it'll be abandoned and made inadvisable to use in a mere four to five — or even six and a half — years. You shouldn't be faced with an outdated, insecure system that's otherwise still perfectly operational and valid. And you shouldn't have to act like a modern-day Indiana Jones just to figure all this out.

It's time for Google to rethink the Chrome OS upgrade standard and figure out a better answer. First, manufacturers shouldn't treat a device's effective expiration date like a buried treasure that the buyer is responsible for digging up. That information should be clearly placarded on a computer's packaging and made easy to find and understand. Imagine a prominently placed label on every Chromebook box: "This computer will receive operating system and security updates through June of 2024. Visit google.com/chromebook/expiration to learn more about why that matters." Sensible, wouldn't ya say?

Second, Chromebooks should receive a consistent period of support based on when the devices themselves are released — not a wildly fluctuating period based on an internal factor that's both bewildering and irrelevant to the end user. From the perspective of a purchaser, it's crazy that Acer's otherwise exceptional system should come with an advisable lifespan that's 16 months shorter than other devices despite the product being priced on the upper end of the Chrome OS spectrum. It's not fair to the person purchasing the system, and it's not fair to Acer, for that matter, either. And while Google has quietly extended the life of some systems in recent months, what we need is a reliable and consistent standard — not an occasional and unpredictable exception.

And third, that period of support shouldn't even be limited to six and a half years as a platform-wide maximum — not when you can buy a similarly priced or even cheaper Windows system and have it remain reasonably updated for exponentially longer.

There's an argument to be made that the Chrome OS model isn't like Windows — that the level of services and security provided, the inclusion of native access to the full Play Store of apps, and all of the platform's other distinguishing features put it on a different plateau — and that you're paying a certain premium for that experience and everything it entails.

And you know what? To a certain extent, that's not an entirely unreasonable position to take. But even if Chrome OS and Windows aren't equals, that doesn't mean it's justifiable for an $800 system to have only a four-year shelf life if you buy it next summer.

The time is now

There has to be a better way — whether it's determining a device's software support window based on its own launch date and pricing tier, with consistently longer shelf lives for higher-end systems, or finding a way to provide at least the minimum performance and security updates to a device even after its window for full support has expired. These solutions certainly wouldn't be simple, from a technical perspective, and plenty of moving pieces are involved — but if anyone has the power and authority to make it happen, it's Google. And if the company wants Chrome OS to thrive and be taken seriously as an all-purpose platform for productivity, it's a challenge it needs to consider.

Think we're being naively optimistic in calling for such a change? Well, consider this: Five years ago, in 2014, I wrote a column called "It's time to rethink the Android upgrade standard" (see the inspiration for this story's title?). At the time, all Android phones followed an 18-month standard for operating system support, which was just plain silly when two years had become the accepted norm for phone contracts and typical periods of ownership in that era.

Within a matter of days, one Android device-maker — HTC (which was, uh, in a somewhat different position then from where it stands now) — announced it would support all of its flagship products for a full two years from that point forward. Soon after, Google adopted the same stance, and it quickly became a platform-wide standard.

Two years ago, meanwhile, I wrote a column suggesting Google's own Pixel phone should come with an elevated three-year window of operating system support — that, given Google's unique position and business model as an Android device-maker and the company's desire to show off the unique value and benefit of a holistic phone model, a higher standard not only for update timeliness but also for update longevity would support its narrative and demonstrate its commitment to long-term customer satisfaction over short-term sales.

And what happened with the following year's phone launch? Yup, you guessed it — an increase to three full years of timely software support for Pixel phones (one that was recently extended even to that first-gen Pixel model, which received Android 10 within hours of its release last month). That move provided the Pixel with an unmatched level of value for anyone who takes the time to think it through.

Now, I'm not trying to claim credit for those changes. The world does revolve around me (obviously), but still: I'm but one voice in a sea of many.

The point, though, is that sometimes, companies actually do listen. Sometimes, change genuinely is possible. And sometimes, it just takes a certain level of demand to catch the right ear and encourage an improvement that might bring broad benefit to both a company and its customers and maybe was being chewed over on some level, anyway.

Chrome OS has come a shockingly long way over the past eight years. Now let's see the policies around it catch up with that progress and create a more sensible and enticing proposition for the people who are embracing it, particularly at the higher price levels.

Come on, Google. You can do this. It's time.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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