Android Intelligence Analysis

Get ready for some serious Google operating system confusion

Think Google's lineup of overlapping operating systems is overwhelming now? Just wait.

Google Operating System Confusion
Google / JR Raphael

Google's approach to operating systems has long befuddled the tech-observing masses. For years, the confusion revolved around the existence of both Android and Chrome OS — two operating systems that struck some folks as being overly similar and without their own distinctive purposes.

Google, as we all know, had a plan — and it eventually spelled things out clear as could be: Android was the operating system for touch-centric experiences, like those you see on phones, while Chrome OS was the framework for more large-screen, desktop-like, keyboard-oriented configurations. The two could co-exist merrily and become aligned — to gain a consistent visual identity and share functional strengths — without having to be merged in a one-or-the-other-style deathmatch, as so many pundits long predicted.

It all made sense, and we had an approach that seemed both deliberate and carefully considered. Sure, things started to get a little murky when Google began to position the Chromebook as the new "Android tablet" — leading up to the launch of the slate-only Chrome OS devices we sometimes see today — but still, the basic idea mostly held true: If you wanted a touch-centric experience like on a phone, you'd get Android. If you wanted a more desktop-like experience, whether in the form of a laptop or a tablet, you'd get Chrome OS. The exact parameters may have gotten a bit muddled, but Google's overall vision for its operating system philosophy still mostly made sense.

Well, gang, it appears that bout of clarity is coming to an end. Android and Chrome OS are still alive and thriving, without a doubt — and despite the constant calls to the contrary, there's no indication either is going anywhere anytime soon — but a slew of new factors is about to complicate matters and put us back into bewilderment.

Think through these upcoming complications with me, and prepare to be befuddled once more.

Desktop disorientation

All right, so Android is for phone-like touch experiences, and Chrome OS is for a more desktop-like setup — right? That's what we've been shown and told for years. With the upcoming Android Q release, though, that's all being thrown out the window, in a manner of speaking, thanks to the addition of a baffling new Android desktop mode.

The desktop mode first showed up in an early leaked beta of the Android Q software, and I was immediately skeptical. Why would Google possibly build a desktop mode into Android when the company had made such a tremendous effort to position Chrome OS as the Android-complementing desktop platform? As I mused at the time, starting to offer an Android-based desktop mode now would be a convoluting shift — not something I ever put completely out of the realm of possibility, mind you (given that, y'know, this is Google we're talking about), but something that certainly seemed like an extraordinarily strange pivot to make.

Well, pivot me timbers: Here we are. At a session during its recent I/O developers' conference, Google explicitly detailed the new desktop mode's purpose — talking about its role providing a "desktop-like, windowed" interface for "phones connected to larger screens."

The desktop mode allows you to view multiple apps on-screen in floating windows, similar to any desktop operating system, and it supports the use of third-party launchers — so your phone could have a special desktop launcher in place that'd activate only on a secondary screen, when the phone is plugged in via HDMI.

Sound funky? Check out this actual functioning demo an ambitious developer put together showing the possibility in action:

Now riddle me this: How does any reasonable person explain the purpose of that type of experience alongside the existence of Chrome OS as the Android-aligned, desktop-optimized operating system? Things are getting awfully murky, and there's a ton of inexplicable overlap involved — the type of thing most companies (though clearly not Google) typically try to avoid.

There's also the fact that these sorts of two-in-one, plug-your-phone-into-a-monitor-and-use-it-like-a-laptop setups — no matter who's been behind 'em — have never really taken off in any meaningful way. They invariably end up feeling like second-rate, serviceable but unexceptional experiences that pale in comparison to what you get from a regular laptop (regardless of whether it's running Chrome OS or a more traditional desktop operating system).

Had Google come out with a setup that'd allow you to plug an Android phone into a monitor and run Chrome OS from it, I'd be over-the-moon excited at the cleverness of the utility it'd created and the way in which it had managed to bundle all of its strengths into a single versatile package. With this, though, all I can really do is scratch my head about why it exists, what it aims to accomplish, and how in the world it'll possibly fit into the greater Google ecosystem.

And that's not the only nugget of confusion about to conk us over our soft, fuzzy noggins.

Android ambiguity

Just yesterday, we talked about Google's grand Assistant transformation and how the company is starting to treat Assistant like its own standalone platform. Developers are now being encouraged to create apps that'll run on both Smart Displays and Android phones — not Android apps, mind you, but a new category of programs that'll exist in some yet-to-be-explained alternate marketplace and be compatible with both types of devices.

Speaking of Smart Displays, what operating system do those things run, anyway? The not-so-simple answer is that it depends on where you look. The third-party Smart Displays (like those sold by Lenovo) are based on Android Things, an OS Google created explicitly to address those types of devices and allow them to offer a consistent user experience. Google's own Smart Display, however — the Home Hub (or Nest Hub, or Nest Home Hub-a-bub, or whatever it's called today) — doesn't use that software. Instead, it's built on Google's "Cast platform," for "no particular reason," as a Google VP explained it.

"We just felt we could bring the experience to bear with Cast, and the experiences are the same," the fella told Ars Technica. "We would have easily given the third-parties Cast if they wanted it, but I think most developers are comfortable using Android Things."

Right.

Then there's Fuchsia — oh, sweet Fuchsia. The under-development operating system has been the object of incessant speculation, with countless headlines treating it as the oh-em-gee, like so-totally-obvious replacement for both Android and Chrome OS. The reality, of course, seems far less black and white, as we've long discussed — and recently, Google itself has talked about Fuchsia as more of an "experimental" project that might one day be used on "different form factors" than the phones and computers we use today.

Whew. Take a minute to reassemble the various pieces of your brain following that mental jostling, and let's try to make some sense of this mystifying jungle.

Navigating the Google OS labyrinth

If there's one bit of sense to be taken away from all of this, it's that throughout these overlapping Google operating systems, one common thread exists: Google Assistant. And guess what? That's probably the most telling piece of this increasingly intricate puzzle.

Just as we said yesterday, Assistant is rapidly becoming the true Google platform of the future. To quote a certain strikingly handsome writer I know, the operating system itself — be it Android, Chrome OS, or any of these curious in-betweeners — is but a pawn in Assistant's larger-scale and higher-stakes game.

So is Google's operating system lineup on its way back to a state of oddly overlapping and impossible-to-explain confusion? In a word: Yes. There seems to be little doubt about that. But you know what? For Google, that might not be much cause for concern. Google, as we're seeing increasingly over time, doesn't want you to even think about what operating system you're using. In Google's eyes, it seems, that type of distinction shouldn't really matter so long as the device integrates seamlessly with the Google services you rely on — including, crucially, Assistant — and accomplishes whatever sorts of tasks you need. It's the Google ecosystem, first and foremost, with Assistant serving as the thread that ties it all together.

It's a nice enough notion in theory, but when someone invariably emails me in the future and asks what the difference is between an Android phone in desktop mode and a Chromebook in tablet mode — not to mention why the app selection on their Smart Display isn't the same as the app selection on their phone — I'll lose one more leaf on my metaphorical tree of mental sanity. And believe you me, my friend, there aren't many leaves left.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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