Breaking up is hard to do: Chrome separates from Chrome OS

It may sound odd, but for old Chromebook users, this may prove a blessing.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ever since day one, people have thought Chromebooks just ran the Chrome browser and that was it. Actually, it was always more complicated than that. Underneath that Chrome browser was a thin Linux distribution, Chrome OS. Now, Kent Duke, a writer and hardcore Chrome OS fan, has found that Google is teasing apart the browser and the operating system into two separate entries.

Why does this matter to anyone except the most dedicated Chromebook nerd? You see, today when you buy a Chromebook, it comes with an end-of-life date, its Auto Update Expiration (AUE) date. This is a generous six and a half years after any specific Chromebook is released. You can find yours by going to the Update Schedule section in your machine's Chrome OS settings. You'll find it underneath the About Chrome OS section, under the Additional details menu. 

Six and a half years is a lot, but Chromebooks, thanks to their old solid-state build, can last much longer. For example, the only reason I'm no longer using the very first commercial Chromebook, the Samsung Series 5, is I sat on it by accident. Whoops! 

That wasn't very security conscious of me. But now, as Duke pointed out:

Currently, Chrome is intertwined deeply with Chrome OS, meaning Google has to compile and ship one monolithic package to the update channels. While that isn't an issue in itself, the major problem lies when a Chromebook hits AUE, or end of life. Just like on an Android phone, when your Chromebook hits AUE, you lose out on new Chrome OS updates. Losing out on a Chrome OS update also means that Chrome itself won't get updated either, which leaves the browser outdated, vulnerable, and unable to take advantage of updated platforms on the web.

 Duke continued, "Since this Chrome binary is distributed separately from Chrome OS, Google can easily update the Chrome binary independently from the operating system. That means even if your Chromebook hits AUE, your browser will at least get the latest and greatest features — and critically, security fixes — from Google." Costs conscious schools in particular, would be able to keep using older Chromebooks without any significant security worries.

Yes, the Linux underneath it might still have security problems. But, despite the security hype, there have never been any truly serious desktop Linux security problems. This is especially true of Chromebooks, where their underlying Linux foundation has a tiny attack surface. The same can't be said for the browser, which is under constant attack. 

Here's how it works. This new alpha approach is called Linux And Chrome OS, or Lacros. Today, the Chrome web browser binary is mixed together with Chrome OS System UI and Linux. WIth Lacros the existing Chrome web browser Chrome OS is renamed ash-chrome. To this, Google's developers have added the Linux Chrome Web browser and renamed it to lacros-chrome. Yes, this means you can run two versions of Chrome, the one incorporated with Chrome OS and the Linux version on the same machine. 

To improve the Linux browser's lacros-chrome performance, the programmers have also improved Chrome OS's Wayland display server protocol. This lets you run two versions of the Chrome web browser without significant performance costs. Lacros uses ozone as an abstraction layer for graphics and event handling. Ozone, in turn, has a "backend" with client-side support for the Wayland compositor protocol.

The application programming interface (API) boundary between the two browsers will be semi-stable. For now, you can run two browsers so long as they're only up to two versions apart. So, for example, you can run Chrome OS 78 with its built-in Chrome web browser version 78 and the Chrome web browser version 80. In the future, you'll be able to run a Chrome web browser that's much newer than the version embedded within an older edition of Chrome OS. 

What all that means for you is that by this time in 2021, you may be able to run your old Chromebook safely with the newest version of Chrome. Besides just being handy to you personally, it may also save your school system and business a good deal of money too.

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