The brilliant Android breakthrough you didn’t hear about at Google I/Oon May 16, 2024 at 10:00 Computerworld

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Unless you’ve been camping out under a mossy tech news rock all week, you’ve probably heard plenty of news connected to Google’s annual Google I/O gala by now.

And my goodness, has there been a glut of it! Google gave us our closest look yet at the upcoming Android 15 update and the freshest features in its latest beta build, and it announced approximately 7.4 gazillion things related to Gemini and the company’s commitment to inserting Much AI Magic™ anywhere and everywhere imaginable.

That’s all well and good. But the most intriguing news of all this week is something El Googathor didn’t so much as mention from the stage or any Google I/O sessions. It seems to be a somewhat secret development, in fact, that’s mostly being discussed behind closed doors and with copious amounts of cackling.*

But it may well be the biggest, most interesting news to break cover in the Android arena all week — maybe even all year. And if it ever ends up moving past the point of demonstration and into an active launch status, it could completely change the way we think about Google’s platforms and what an “Android device” represents — even more, I’d contend, than any amount of AI could possibly ever accomplish.

* The cackling part is entirely my own creation. But, c’mon: It makes the visual *way* more dramatic, doesn’t it?!

[Get fresh Googley insight in your inbox with my free Android Intelligence newsletter. Three new things to know and try every Friday — cackling completely optional.]

Google’s Android-ChromeOS connection dissection

So, to set the stage for this I/O-overshadowing twist: Google, as you likely know by now, maintains two separate but increasingly connected computing platforms with Android and ChromeOS.

And while Android has traditionally been designed for on-the-go phones and tablets, ChromeOS has always been all about computers and a more active-input, typing-oriented experience.

To be sure, those lines have blurred considerably over the years. These days, you can buy Chromebooks that double as keyboard-free touch tablets and even pure ChromeOS tablets with no physical QWERTY keys anywhere to be found — and all of those devices are able to run Android apps natively. After a brief period of putting Android tablets on the backburner, meanwhile, Google’s been going hard on Android tablet development for a while now and even actively working on an Android desktop mode for devices that are connected to a larger monitor.

It’s a confusing array of overlapping options and ambiguous divisions that’s difficult to wrap your head around. But — well, y’know. That’s Google for ya.

And now, the company has come up with a way to add yet another wrinkle into that equation — one that’d complicate things and muddy the waters even further but also bring Android and ChromeOS together in a groundbreaking new way.

I won’t keep you waiting: The possibility, as reported and then demoed by Android Authority, is a secondary desktop mode of sorts for Android that would allow you to plug a phone into a monitor or docking station and effectively turn it into a functioning Chromebook, right in front of your eyes.

Your Android phone would run ChromeOS, in other words, and be capable of becoming a productivity-ready computer when hooked up to the right hardware.

Allow me to express the appropriate reaction on behalf of all of us here: Whooooaaaaaaaaaa.

That, to put it mildly, would be a massive move. It’d bring a genuine purpose to an Android desktop mode that’d make it useful and sensible in a way the current concepts have never managed to achieve, outside of some extremely small niche-level scenarios — going all the way back to the early Moto-made “Lapdock” systems of yesteryear and continuing into the more contemporary options available on Android today.

Now, before you get too excited, Google has since gone on the record as saying that the system was only a tech demo and a proof of concept for the underlying virtualization technology introduced in Android 15. But the company’s Android ecosystem president also noted that “a lot of things in Google start like this.” And, if I may be so bold: Google would be well-advised to see this as more than just a mere experiment.

In fact, it’s a possibility certain Android- and ChromeOS-focused philosophers have calling on the company to consider for ages. To quote an analysis a lowly scribe who shall remain nameless penned in 2016, when rumors of Google somehow combining Android and ChromeOS into a single connected entity were gaining steam for the 7,000th time:

What if [this] were essentially just a way to give Android devices a “desktop mode” — a ChromeOS-like environment that appears when, say, a physical keyboard is present, with a more traditional Android interface remaining in place for touch-centric use? A ChromeOS-like environment wouldn’t be ideal as a core part of the regular touch-centric Android experience, after all, but it sure could be valuable as an option for scenarios involving more productivity-oriented and laptop-like use.

And what if this best-of-both-worlds, dual-purpose mentality applies not only to convertible systems but also to phones? Maybe even phones like, ahem, the new Pixel devices Google is expected to announce next week — you know, at the same event where all this [Android-ChromeOS merger] business is rumored to make its grand debut?

One could imagine that happening by way of a special dock-like accessory and/or via a less proprietary method of connection — say, a Bluetooth keyboard along with a Chromecast to beam the desktop to a display. (Of note, a new higher-end 4K-capable Chromecast is rumored to be on the docket for next week’s event.)

Such a setup could effectively turn any compatible Android device into a versatile all-purpose computer that packs the strengths of Google’s two platforms into a single superpowered package — kind of like what Microsoft is doing with Windows 10’s Continuum concept, only with the world’s most popular mobile operating system and all of its apps involved.

It’d be pretty darn monumental. And it could conceivably allow each platform to continue to exist independently as well as within the new combined form (something that’s particularly significant when you consider the strong demand for both inexpensive lower-end phones and cost-effective standalone Chromebooks).

And here we are.

ChromeOS and Android together: Some pertinent perspective

Again, let’s be clear: The Android-phone-as-a-Chromebook concept is still far from being anything more than a behind-the-scenes demo. But be that as it may, Goog almighty: A possibility like this sure is something to think about, isn’t it? It’d be a clever and uniquely-Googley way to create new utility in our existing devices and bundle the strengths of two complementary platforms — Android and ChromeOS — into a single versatile package.

Consider the breakdown of how Google itself sees the dividing line between Android devices and ChromeOS devices, in their current configurations. As a ChromeOS executive explained it to me in 2022:

In short, Android tablets are intended for “productive mobility,” as [Google Senior Director of Product Management Alexander] Kuscher describes it — with content consumption being the top priority and a bit of more complex productivity being an occasional add-on.

Chromebook tablets, on the other hand, are the exact opposite: They’re intended for “mobile productivity,” with the active work being the primary purpose and the more passive consumption being a pleasant side perk.

Ideally, with all the devices feeling consistent and connected, the purchasing decisions will be mostly about what specific product feels right for what purpose, all overlap aside — and once said product is in hand, its owner won’t even think much about what platform or operating system is involved.

And one more excerpt that suddenly feels freshly pertinent:

“What’s underneath doesn’t really matter to the user. You could have 10 different operating systems, one for each form factor, if you wanted that. The important piece is what you present to the user.”

That, Kuscher says, is why Android and ChromeOS have continued to grow more consistent and connected over the years. In Google’s view, the operating system is less important than the experience — and increasingly, it’s working to present experiences that are so similar that they feel more like different branches of the same tree than completely separate forests.

Hmmmmmm. Veddy eeeenteresting in the context of our current conversation, wouldn’t ya say?

Now, to play devil’s advocate for a moment: I still have my doubts about how often most people would actually use an option like this. I mean, really: How frequently are you in a position where you have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse available but not a full-fledged computer? That’s a huge part of what limits the usefulness of current desktop mode concepts on Android, in addition to their less-than-optimal desktop environments and clunky user experiences.

But the presence of ChromeOS would at least address the latter part of that limitation. ChromeOS is extremely capable as a desktop operating system these days, and its everything-connected-to-the-cloud philosophy would actually be a brilliant match for this setup — where plugging in, powering up, and having all your stuff right in front of you from wherever you were working last would be a major asset for on-the-go productivity.

As for the hardware piece of the puzzle, a simple docking accessory to accompany this effort — say, an easily portable laptop shell that a phone plugs into — could theoretically make that less of an issue. Particularly if this ended up being something Google were to launch as a Pixel-specific feature, selling such an item would make an awful lot of sense on multiple levels.

It’s too soon to say what, if anything, could ultimately come of this. But on a week when we’re thinking about the future and hearing about Google’s plans for pushing its platforms and products forward, it’s hard not to see this as the most promising and potentially shape-shifting possibility of all.

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Android, Chrome OS, Chromebooks, Computers, Google, Laptops, Operating Systems, Productivity Software

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