Google's quietly working on two shape-shifting Chrome OS features that could completely change the nature of Chromebooks — for the better.
A Chromebook today is an awful lot of different things.
Sometimes, it's a simple cloud-centric laptop. Other times, it's a complex and capable computing machine. Other times yet, it's effectively an Android tablet.
One thing a Chromebook is not, however, is an especially long-term investment.
To its credit, Google's taken some significant steps toward extending the lifespan of Chrome OS devices as of late, with the typical software support window now stretched from a one-time maximum of six and a half years to a much more reasonable standard of eight years — occasionally even more. That's a big step, for sure, but the problem is that it still pales in comparison to the virtually endless software support you can get with systems running certain more traditional operating systems, such as those whose name rhymes with Schmindows.
Well, my Chrome-adoring amigo, brace yourself: This could be the year that all changes.
As we speak, Google's working on two different subtle-seeming behind-the-scenes adjustments to the Chrome OS software — changes we've chatted about in passing before, separately, but that taken together add up to a whole new level of eye-opening progress. They're changes no normal Chromebook-owning creature would possibly be tuned into right now and that most average Chrome OS users might not ever even notice. But they're changes you'd be well-advised to keep an eye on over the months ahead, as they could seriously shake up the very foundation of what a Chromebook is and how your laptop's viability could evolve over time.
The one-two Chromebook punch
I won't keep you waiting: The two changes swirling around in this Google-tinted ocean of ours are the separation of the Chrome browser from the Chrome OS operating system and the integration of something called CloudReady into the Chrome OS codebase.
Sounds like a lot of technical gobbledegook, I know, but hang on — 'cause these two seemingly unrelated sets of geek-speak could have a massive impact on the future of a Chromebook near you. And it could come to fruition much sooner than you'd expect.
The first part of that delightfully savory nerd-stew recipe is something we first saw signs of one year ago this month and then saw starting to take shape publicly for the first time last September. And to understand its significance and how it fits into this two-part picture, we need to take a very brief jaunt back through Chrome OS's history.
As it stands now, y'see, Chrome the browser is a key part of a Chromebook's core software. That goes back to Chrome OS's earliest days when the software was intended to be, quite literally, "the Google Chrome Operating System."
The idea at the platform's start was that the entire operating system would essentially be Chrome — a "natural extension" of the browser, as Google put it at the time. The operating system basically was the browser, in fact, and not much more. You had no desktop, no taskbar, no apps, and no real multitasking to speak of. The entire experience was a full-screen Chrome browser window and very little beyond that.
Chrome OS's focus has expanded exponentially since then, of course, and the Chromebooks we know today barely resemble those early devices. They're infinitely more fleshed out and capable, and Chrome the browser is ultimately just one element in a fully-featured desktop environment — much as it is on any other desktop platform.
But — stay with me; I swear we're building up to something with this! — the structure and foundation from those earliest days have remained largely the same. Despite all the growth and the fact that Chromebooks stopped feeling like "the Chrome Operating System" many moons ago, the Chrome browser is still built directly into the heart of the experience and the software that surrounds it.
That means the browser is updated as part of the operating system instead of as its own standalone single-app entity. And that, in turn, means that once a Chromebook is no longer getting operating system updates, the browser itself is gonna get dangerously out of date and inadvisable to use very quickly — since browsers like Chrome need to be updated every few weeks to address the ever-evolving web of internet security threats.
And that's why Google's move to pull Chrome the browser out of Chrome OS the operating system is huge — because if Google can update the browser part of Chromebooks separately from the operating system, it could conceivably continue to keep a Chromebook's browser up to date indefinitely, even long after the device's primary support period has ended. It'd be no different than the way it rolls out routine updates to Chrome on Schmindows or even YakOS. (We're still doing the rhyming thing, right?)
And with recent signs that Google is inching ever closer to finishing up a system that'd switch the primary Chrome OS browser away from the integrated version of Chrome and to a new specialized standalone version of the browser — well, it sure seems like the change is tantalizingly close. Almost so close that you can taste that flavor-filled stew Google's slowly been simmering.
That's part one.
The Chrome OS renewal recipe: Part II
The second piece of this beef-scented puzzle is that whole CloudReady thing — y'know, the thing being merged into the Chrome OS code that we mentioned at the start of this (weirdly soup-themed) story. Google bought the company behind CloudReady last December when most of us were already tuned out and/or inebriated for the holidays. But boy howdy, is it something worth noticing.
I first wrote about CloudReady way back in the prehistoric age of 2016, when the software was part of a scrappy independent startup working to provide us mere mortals with a way to give dusty old computers new life. In the simplest possible terms, CloudReady is a version of Chrome OS-based solely on Google's open-source code of the operating system — and thus without all the Google-specific elements (Assistant, Android app support, a microscopic virtual doppelgänger of Sergey Brin, and so on) baked in.
CloudReady came up with a clever way you could take that software and, without a heck of a lot of effort or technical know-how, install it onto an old Schmindows computer and then have a clean, simple, and perpetually up-to-date Chromebook-like experience on that device. The company behind it provided regular over-the-air updates, just like Google does, and made everything as easy as could be.
So, yeah: Google snatching up that company opens some pretty interesting possibilities, to say the very least. As CloudReady gets integrated into Chrome OS proper, it'll presumably gain those proprietary Googley elements it had previously been missing — meaning a converted old computer using the CloudReady software could, in theory, be almost indistinguishable from a Chromebook you buy off the shelf. (Whether or not that capability will be provided for free, of course, is a whole other question.)
But beyond that, having the CloudReady structure within Google's virtual walls could allow for an even more expanded view of what long-term Chrome OS support could eventually look like. Remember: CloudReady provided system software updates more or less indefinitely for devices running its version of the Chrome OS operating system. If Google really wanted to, it's not unreasonable to think it could use those same mechanisms to meaningfully expand the level of support it offers to its own officially certified Chromebooks — is it?
This week, as my comrade and fellow Chrome OS dissector Kevin Tofel astutely observed, Google is working overtime to bring CloudReady into the Chrome OS code for full integration. And as he noted, that could create a veddy eeeeenteresting one-two punch with the whole browser separation brouhaha we were just thinking over.
Consider: When your Chromebook reaches its expiration date, instead of becoming a frozen-in-time relic as it does now, it could continue to receive those all-important browser-specific updates every few weeks indefinitely from Google — and maybe, just maybe, you could also have some manner of option to move it from the regular Chrome OS channel into the CloudReady-based extended support path for some form of ongoing operating system updates on top of that.
How exactly that'd look from a fleshy laptop owner's perspective is still anyone's guess. Would it be a deliberate transition — something you'd have to opt into? Would it require some manner of extended support plan purchase to pull off? Or would it for all intents and purposes just be an extension of the existing Chrome OS experience, without any noticeable difference on the user's end?
At this point, all we can do is speculate. But the possibilities that pop up from this two-pronged expansion sure are promising. And even if they end up being a subscription-driven, perhaps even purely enterprise- and/or education-aimed offering (as CloudReady's paid product currently is), they could be insanely significant in terms of their impact.
Between the browser split and the CloudReady combining, some scrumptious changes are most certainly a-comin' to our once-humble little Chromebook universe. The questions now are when exactly they'll arrive and how exactly they'll end up working. But one way or another, it seems all but certain that our view of what a Chromebook is all about is about to get shaken up and freshly seasoned again.
Mmm...nerd stew. Gotta love that zesty flavor.