Google I/O 2015: Where were Chrome OS and the Chromebooks?

Android is still the king of Google's software platforms for devices. Chrome OS, which doesn't have even one percent of the Android user base was second fiddle this year at I/O keynote.

At last year's Google I/O developer event, Chrome OS was front and center during the keynote. This year, Google's desktop platform was conspicuously absent by comparison.

Instead, the main focus was on Android M and improving the Android experience, Android Pay, Google's Internet of Things software dubbed Brillo, and virtual reality.

Where the heck was Chrome OS, Google's cloud-based platform for laptops and desktops?

Google's Chromebook Pixel (Image: Google)

During the keynote I kept thinking "It will be up next" as Google moved from topic to topic. That didn't happen. About the only reference to Chromebooks was a discussion on getting people connected around the world. And even then, it just a passing remark on how you can now get a reasonably good Chromebook for under $150 around the world.

At the 2014 developer event, Google introduced a test project to easily port Android apps to Chrome OS, giving Chromebooks a wider range of software choices.

Since then, the company has announced a handful of new Android apps for Chrome OS every eight weeks or so. Google also matured the test program by providing a beta tool, the App Runtime for Chrome, for developers to get Android apps on Chrome OS devices. This year, I expected a broader rollout of such Android apps but it didn't happen.

The strange thing is: I know Google is still working to improve Chrome OS. On a weekly basis, I've seen little tweaks and changes in the platform that filter their way from the Chrome OS Developer Channel to eventually make their way to all Chromebooks and Chromeboxes. Few of the improvements are major so maybe that's why Chrome OS was generally a no-show in this year's Google I/O keynote.

Google doesn't typically announce new Chrome OS hardware at I/O and it already launched the successor to its 2013 Chromebook Pixel. That happened earlier this year and the new Chromebook Pixel 2 still meets my own daily needs; Google addressed the largest issues with the original device.

You can now get all-day battery life with a very high resolution display but the premium will cost you: The new Pixel is priced at $999 to start.

Perhaps with no new hardware from partners to show off, there was little point in mentioning Chrome OS. Or perhaps the omission is just a statement on the current state of Chromebooks as compared to Android.

Google did note last week that it has one billion Android users. That's a staggering figure when compared to those who use Chrome OS. I haven't seen any official numbers on that statistic but it's surely a very small percentage relative to Android.

Indeed, some Chromebooks sales estimates appear to have diminished of late. Yes, Chromebooks are considered a top-seller in the education market but that's a small slice of the total computer buying population. Research firm Gartner now figures only 7.3 million Chromebooks will be sold in 2015, up from 5.7 million last year.

That's still 27 percent growth but in terms of relative sales, even 10 million Chromebook sales would be a scant one percent of total Android users today. As much as Chrome OS works for me, it clearly doesn't work for or is appealing to the population at large, even with new designs and additional touch capabilities.

I don't think Google has "given up" on the platform, even though it only got a passing nod in this year's Google I/O keynote. Even as an everyday Chromebook user, it makes sense to me for Google to invest in and attract developer attention for the more popular platform: Android.

Instead, it appears that there were too many other areas Google wanted to highlight as it tries to apply its search indexing and machine learning to everything from your photos to surfacing apps based on context.

For now then, it seems Chrome OS is taking a backseat to Google's broader efforts, at least publicly.

Behind the scenes, however, Chrome OS will continue to mature because even though mobile computing is the next big thing, people will still use desktop platforms for years to come. Perhaps next year Chromebooks get their spotlight on stage at I/O.

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