A colossal change is on the way for Chromebooks — and if you're seeing only what's on the surface, you're missing what's most important.
Don't look now, but Chrome OS is about to undergo the biggest and most transformative change in the platform's history.
It's something we've actually been hearing about since April but that's just starting to take shape publicly for the first time this week. And while its practical, surface-level significance is without a doubt massive, the philosophical effect of the shift may be the most monumental of all.
Buckle up, gang. We've got some seriously deep thinking to do.
Chrome OS and the browser foundation
We'll go beyond the surface to explore the next-level impact of this move in a second — but first, let's address the basics of what's happening here and why it matters from a practical perspective. Google, in case you haven't heard, is working on an ambitious plan to separate Chrome the browser from Chrome OS the operating system. As it stands now, Chrome itself is an integral part of Chrome OS. It's built right into the operating system. And that creates a couple of unfortunate challenges.
By having the browser integrated into the operating system, y'see, Google isn't able to update the actual browser once a Chromebook is no longer receiving OS-level upgrades. And even with Chromebooks now getting longer periods of OS support than ever, that puts 'em at a bit of a disadvantage compared to other computers — as ongoing updates to the browser are typically fast, frequent, and critically important. They address endless security vulnerabilities and keep you safe whilst browsing this wobbly ol' web of ours.
And yet, on a Chromebook, once a device is out of its active support window, it's also done getting updates to the browser — and thus really isn't all that advisable to use, particularly in a security-conscious business scenario. That's a pretty big contrast to what you'd see on, say, a Windows system, where Chrome the browser is updated eternally, regardless of what's going on at the system level.
On top of that, by having the browser integrated into the operating system, Google isn't able to deploy patches as quickly and efficiently as it can when the browser exists as its own standalone element. As my pal and fellow Google scholar Kevin Tofel notes, Chrome OS updates typically arrive a couple of weeks after Chrome browser updates for other platforms — because while the browser portion of the updates is consistent across the board, on Chrome OS, it's bundled in with that beefier operating system update, which takes longer to process and deliver.
All of this is to say that, goodness gracious, separating the browser from the operating system in Chrome OS sure makes a heck of a lot of sense. It'll allow Chromebooks to remain at least reasonably viable even after their end-of-life dates, and it'll let Google deliver browser updates to them at a pace that matches what it's providing for other platforms. In a sense, it's kind of like how Google's been pulling pieces of the operating system out of Android for years now and turning them into standalone elements that can be updated quickly, frequently, and without the need for any formal OS rollouts.
And — big gasp — all of that is just the surface-level part of the story.
Chrome OS - Chrome =?
The Android analogy is nice and all, but with Chrome OS, there's a whole other layer at play (and yes, we're officially now moving on to that "next-level impact" piece of the puzzle). Chrome OS, after all, was originally designed to be the Chrome Operating System. The Chrome browser was deliberately built into its core. I mean, hell, it was the entire point of why Chromebooks were created.
As Google put it at the time of Chrome OS's introduction in 2009 (with the emphasis being mine):
We designed Google Chrome for people who live on the web — searching for information, checking email, catching up on the news, shopping, or just staying in touch with friends. However, the operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no web. So today, we're announcing a new project that's a natural extension of Google Chrome — the Google Chrome Operating System. It's our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be.
Let's say that one more time: the Google Chrome Operating System. It's easy to forget these days that that's what Chrome OS actually represents — or once did, anyway.
You remember this, right? At its start, Chrome OS was quite literally just a "browser in a box" — a full-screen Chrome window with no desktop, nothing so much as even resembling a traditional app, and next to no settings or options. That "browser in a box" characterization stuck around as a misleading jab at Chromebooks for far too long, but in the very beginning, it really was accurate, and it was very much that way by design.
In the years since then, Chrome OS has slowly but surely moved away from being the Chrome Operating System, in that original sense. It gained traditional OS elements such as a desktop, a taskbar, and a multitasking interface — and it little by little became more consistent and connected with its Android cousin. Visuals aside, the platform gained support for Android apps, then gained support for Linux apps, and is now on the brink of gaining support for Windows apps, too (at least in the enterprise environment, where Google's especially focused on expanding the Chromebook's appeal).
As I put it earlier this summer, Chrome OS has gone from being the "nothing OS" to being the "everything OS" — a far cry from its original purpose as, ahem, the Chrome Operating System. And this latest move, decoupling the Chrome browser entirely from the operating system, seems like the crowning step in that transition — the formal acknowledgment that, regardless of what it's still called, Chrome OS is no longer the Chrome Operating System.
Ultimately, of course, Chrome OS hasn't been the Chrome Operating System is anything but a name for ages. I mean, really, what role does Chrome even play in Chrome OS's current incarnation? The software is basically now just an operating system that happens to use Chrome as its browser. Even the system settings, once integrated tightly with the browser settings, have been separated out as their own entity since this time last year. The de-Chromifying of Chrome OS is a change Google's been building up to for quite a while now, and this is the next logical step in that transition.
So sure, the separation of Chrome and Chrome OS may seem almost like a formality at this point, but make no mistake about it: It's a colossal change from what the software was originally designed to be — and significant recognition of what it's actually become.