Chrome OS grows from underdog to attack dog

Today, the slate. Tomorrow, the world? Knocking Android out of phones may be the ultimate prize for what has been an OS with little acceptance beyond education.

Chrome OS seemed like a head-scratcher at its introduction. Who wanted an operating system built around a browser? And one that couldn't use native apps? And why would Google create this when it seemed to be taking over the world with Android? But at the introduction of its latest devices this week, Google devices chief Rick Osterloh relayed a history of Chrome OS that made it seem like a natural evolution for Google. In retrospect, the app-centric Android -- which Google acquired 13 years ago this month -- was an anomaly for the company that was built on the openness of the web, a hedge against being shut out of the mobile future by then Microsoft and soon Apple.

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Osterloh relayed the evolution of Chrome OS as having followed from Google's initial search work and a need to speed up web browsing via the Chrome browser. Based on the "reimagining" of it for the Pixel Slate, though, it's not difficult to see that it is becoming a foundation for more Google efforts, having won the battle with Android as Google's choice for a tablet. In fact, Android was slighted throughout the presentation.

In the past, for example, Pixel phones (and Nexus phones before them) would be distinguished as the first to run the latest Android operating system, now Pie. At the introduction of the Pixel 3 phones, however, there was nary a mention of Android Pie. The Android apps that populate the Pixel Slate were simply referred to as apps. In fact, there were even indirect swipes taken at Android. In taking a potshot at the iPad for running off a smartphone operating system, Google, of course, also besmirched all tablets based on Google's other OS.


In my last column that discussed the evolution of Microsoft's hardware versus that of its licensees, I noted how the company rolled out the premium Surface Laptop while showcasing cheap laptops aimed at K-12 students. That move paralleled what we've seen from Google when it has come to its own Chrome OS devices. From the beginning, they have been aimed at the premium market segment, while licensees such as Acer won deals with school districts to deploy inexpensive and easily managed Chromebooks. I also mentioned how, at least in the case of Surface, the grand experiment to merge laptop and tablet has resulted in a device that hews much closer to the former in terms of function, even as it resembles the latter more in form.

Now, in time when only a handful of major companies (Samsung and Huawei) continue to pursue larger Android tablets. Google has apparently decided to step in with a version of its "desktop" OS. This buys Google a few advantages. First, when its circular-buttoned keyboard is attached, the Pixel Slate can switch from more of a tablet mode to a desktop mode. This is similar to what Surface can do, except Google can rely on a huge library of tablet-friendly (if often not optimized) Android apps.

Second, either mode can take advantage of the full desktop version of Chrome, an advantage over iOS (and Android). And third, Chrome OS' extensive history with mouse and keyboard make it a good match for a desktop mode when connected to an external monitor. There have been questions around the breadth of this need at least since Microsoft launched Continuum for Windows Phones, but it should provide a more familiar experience than, say, Samsung's DeX.

On the other hand, the Pixel Slate faces many obstacles. Among these are general continued softness in the general tablet market, Google's limited retail footprint and enterprise channels, and little awareness or momentum of Chrome OS beyond education, much less acceptance of it as a tablet operating system. A larger tablet, the Pixel Slate with its keyboard cover will cost about $800 with a Celeron, about the same price as the smaller 10.5-inch iPad Pro with an Apple keyboard cover (and $150 less than a keyboard-equipped 12.9-inch model).

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It's less than a similarly sized Surface Pro 6 with Keyboard Cover ($1,060) although that device's minimum configuration includes a Core i5 processor and more RAM offset by Windows' larger footprint. So, all in all, the Pixel Slate is competitively priced, although not dramatically cheaper versus the main keyboard-equipped tablets from its main ecosystem rivals.

But the Pixel Slate may just be a stepping stone in Chrome OS' continued evolution. Now that it can run Android apps, a future version of Chrome OS may be the basis for future smartphones from Google or perhaps others. That would represent a dramatic shift from the operating system's original minimalist focus.

Such a move could become a way for Google to further differentiate from Android licensees while retaining its rich smartphone app library. It would be one way to reconcile the differences between Google's two main operating systems that was suggested in Chrome OS' early days.

It would also be consistent with what its main rivals are doing. Microsoft had finally produced a phone-based version of Windows 10 before shuttering its device business. It's also not conceptually dissimilar for apps from the mobile-focused iOS being deployed on macOS. In Apple's case, though, there seems to be no near-term interest in expanding its desktop operating system toward tablets or other devices that would necessitate mode-switching.

Previous and related coverage:

The new Pixel Slate starts at $599

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Pixel 3, Google Home Hub and Pixel Slate: Everything Google just announced

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