Lemme let you in on a little secret: Google isn’t your average software company.
Understatement of the century, I know, right? But it’s tough to talk about the ever-shifting intersection of Android and Chrome OS without first putting that out there.
I mean, think about it: For just over a decade now, Google’s been simultaneously developing and promoting two totally separate but increasingly overlapping paths for experiencing the best that its apps and services have to offer.
You know the deal: On the one side, you’ve got Android — the go-to platform for touch-centric mobile products. And on the other, there’s Chrome OS — the once-barebones computer framework that’s grown into a powerful and platform-defying “Everything”-level operating system.
For years, the purpose and path of each platform has been easy enough to understand: Android’s been mostly for smartphones, while Chrome OS has been intended for larger laptops, desktop computers, and the most optimal Android-app-supporting tablet experience.
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But now, with Google renewing its focus on Android as a tablet platform and cookin’ up all sorts of concepts to improve the large-screen Android experience — many of which, fittingly enough, take inspiration from Chrome OS — the situation is suddenly getting 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 as they gear up to go head to head in the greater tablet market.
Fair warning: Some unexpected revelations await.
Android and Chrome: Two paths, two purposes
Kuscher, of all people, knows a thing or two about Chrome OS’s evolution. He joined the Chrome OS team right around the time that Google was getting ready to launch the Cr-48 — the initial prototype Chromebook sent to testers (and, ahem, lowly tech columnists) ahead of the platform’s formal release.
In those early days, Chrome OS was little more than a full-screen browser — no desktop, no wallpaper, and virtually nothing other than the web.
This early introduction video says it all:
Looking back now, 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 do want to have the simplicity, but it should still be powerful,” he says.
And while he now concedes that Google’s initial vision for the platform was perhaps a touch “too purist,” he maintains that starting point worked out for the best — as it gave Google a clear goalpost and established the foundation for many of the computing trends we still see play out today.
“I actually like the fact that we set an anchor all the way out on the side … then sort of let [ourselves] be drawn a little bit back to the middle,” he says. “I think you needed to have that extreme.”
That extreme is a far cry from the rich and versatile setup Chrome OS offers today. The evolution of the touch-centric Chromebook experience seemed to line up almost perfectly with Google’s unspoken abandonment of Android as a tablet platform following the short-lived Honeycomb era of 2011.
But now that Android tablets are coming back into the picture as a core Google focus, where does that leave Chrome OS? Will the Chromebook-as-a-tablet push fade away as Android once again takes center stage in that arena? How can the two competing forces possibly coexist in a way that makes sense — both from Google’s perspective and from the perspective of tech-totin’ humans who want to buy a tablet and don’t know what to think?
Kuscher says those questions are all perfectly reasonable. But he says Google already has an answer — one that actually extends over two separate but equally important parts.
“The first goal is [to] make [the two platforms] work well together,” he says. “This should all look like it was made out of one hand.”
That’s getting at the alignment of Android and Chrome OS we’ve been seeing take shape for almost eight years now — the ongoing “Androidification” of Chrome OS, as I like to call it, along with the more recent trend of Chrome OS interface elements being brought over to the Android domain.
But beyond that, there’s one key point Kuscher emphasizes for understanding how Android tablets and Chrome tablets can make sense alongside each other — and that’s what you intend to do with the associated product.
In short, Android tablets are intended for “productive mobility,” as Kuscher describes it — with content consumption being the top priority and a bit of more complex productivity being an occasional add-on.
Chromebook tablets, on the other hand, are the exact opposite: They’re intended for “mobile productivity,” with the active work being the primary purpose and the more passive consumption being a pleasant side perk.
Ideally, with all the devices feeling consistent and connected, the purchasing decisions will be mostly about what specific product feels right for what purpose, all overlap aside — and once said product is in hand, its owner won’t even think much about what platform or operating system is involved.
“We actually make it successful if we are completely gone [from the user’s perception],” Kuscher says. “The more in the background we do that, the better.”
That certainly makes enough sense on the surface. But it also raises some other pressing questions.
The Android-Chrome-OS roadmap
With full realization that we’ve been down this road before, it’s impossible to talk about this stuff — about the overlap and alignment of Android and Chrome OS — without at least considering the question of if and when the two platforms could ever fully converge.
To be clear, that’s not to say Google would combine the code and create some sort of gigantic mutant computing monster (delightful of a visual as that may be). Instead, it’s simply asking whether, given the increasing areas of overlap, it might one day be in the company’s interest to unify their strengths and narrow its development energy down to a single all-purpose platform of some sort.
To Kuscher, the question has two layers: There’s the technological layer, with the bits and bytes that power the associated products. And then there’s the user experience layer, which is how ordinary land mammals like us actually experience the devices on either side of the spectrum.
“The bottom part is a technological discussion,” Kuscher says.
And as for the top part? Well, prepare to put on your cryptic-answer interpreting hat:
“What’s underneath it doesn’t really matter to the user. You could have 10 different operating systems, one for each form factor, if you wanted that. The important piece is what you present to the user.”
That, Kuscher says, is why Android and Chrome OS has continued to grow more consistent and connected over the years. In Google’s view, the operating system is less important than the experience — and increasingly, it’s working to present experiences that are so similar that they feel more like different branches of the same tree than completely separate forests.
All that talk raised one more meaty question in my mind — one I’ve been wondering about (and cookin’ up creative workarounds to accomplish) for ages.
The million-dollar Android-Chromebook question
So here it is: If the plan is for Android and Chrome OS to become more consistent and aligned, when will we see a more customizable, Android-home-screen-like desktop for Chromebooks — one that allows you to add widgets and other sorts of useful info onto your device’s default background?
The answer might surprise you.
“It’s a really interesting question that my team asks every single release,” Kuscher allows.
And the notion of bringing more oomph to the Chrome OS desktop is something the team is seriously contemplating, he tells me. But — a big but and perhaps the reason the fruit of that contemplation has been so slow to blossom — he and his team want to be extremely careful about how they approach any sort of Chromebook desktop expansion.
“The important piece for me is [that] I want to make sure it serves a very specific purpose,” he says.
Computer desktops in general tend to turn into “dumping grounds,” as he rightfully observes — a combination of copy-and-paste boards for storing files, launchers for organizing apps, and a zillion other random uses in between.
All of those things are “a solution to some need,” Kuscher says, but he’d rather understand the underlying need and come up with a thoughtful way to address it than just blindly follow the status quo.
With that in mind, he wants to make sure that whatever the Chrome OS desktop becomes is thoughtfully conceived with a very specific purpose in mind. Plopping files down into that space doesn’t seem like an optimal solution in Kuscher’s extraordinarily logical (and very Googley) view, for instance — so instead, his team came up with the concept of Tote, which is a recently added area of a Chromebook’s taskbar that shows recent screenshots and downloads and allows you to pin important files for easy access from anywhere.
“It’s a different solution to the same problem,” he says.
So what role might the Chrome OS desktop be well-suited to play beyond just providing a pleasant space for gazing uponst your wallpaper? The answer comes from a familiar source — and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be delighted to hear it:
The Chrome OS desktop could one day become a destination for both widgets and other forms of ambient information. Yup — another bit of welcome Androidification on that side of the Google universe.
But don’t expect it to look like an Android clone. Without divulging too many specifics about the thinking around this (or even when we might see it start to take shape), Kuscher tells me one critical thing about his longer-term plans for the Chromebook desktop: The software’s desktop 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 back to Kuscher’s overarching goal with Chrome OS — one he’s had since the platform’s earliest days: simplicity. For every piece of power that’s added into the equation, he strives to step back and think about how he and his team can maintain the simplicity that existed before it.
It’s a moving target and one Google doesn’t always get right, but it’s absolutely something Kuscher tries to keep front and center in his impossibly busy brain.
“That’s the holy grail,” he says — “making really complex things really easy.”
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