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Chrome OS is Getting Fragmented (and This Time It’s Google’s Fault)

Cameron Summerson

Android “fragmentation” has long been a talking point about the OS. As I’ve said before, however, manufacturers are to blame for that. But now I fear that Chrome OS is going down the same path—and this time it’s Google’s fault.

How Chrome OS Updates Differ from Android

I’m going to make some connections between Android and Chrome OS early on here because it only makes sense as a starting point. The biggest difference between the two is that Android is open and available for all manufacturers to modify and redistribute; Chrome OS, by contrast, is fully managed by Google.

On Android, device manufacturers are responsible for slowing down updates. For example, when a new Android version is released, the manufacturer has to modify the source code to fit its needs before releasing it. For example, Samsung had to add all of the One UI features before it could release the Android Pie update for compatible Galaxy devices.

Google, on the other hand, manages all updates for its Pixel devices. That means as soon as a major Android release is ready to go, Google can push it out the door. This is precisely the reason every Android journalist out there (myself included) will tell you to go with a Pixel device if you care about timely updates.

So what does that have to do with Chrome OS? You can think of Chrome OS in the same way you can the Pixel phones’ Android build. The key difference is that while the Pixel is a single line of phones designed and managed by Google, Chrome OS is available on a staggering number of devices from dozens of manufacturers. But in the simplest terms, that doesn’t matter; just know that Chrome OS updates are handled by Google, regardless of the device or manufacturer to which it’s being applied.

Now, that’s not to say that all Chrome OS devices get the updates at the same time. Each build still has to be tweaked to work with each Chrome devices’ specific hardware. As a result, one Chromebook may get an update as soon as it’s ready, while another has to wait a couple of weeks. But the point is that they all still get what should be the same update.

But as more and more features are introduced—especially newer ones that require virtualization like Linux and Android app support—a feature gap is starting to grow between Chrome OS devices, and that’s troubling.

The Chrome OS Feature Gap Conundrum

Chrome OS users were excited when Google first announced it would bring Android apps to Chrome OS. With that one move, Google was able to bring a huge number of useful features, apps, games, tools, and more to an operating system that was long chastised for being “just a web browser.”

It took a lot longer than expected for Android apps to start hitting devices. No big deal; we just wanted them to get it right. Then the bad news came: not every device would get support for Android apps. The list started to trickle out, along with an expected timeline of when the feature would arrive, and every Chromebook owner clamored to see if their device made the cut. There were a lot of disappointed users. The worst part is that it’s not clear why some devices got Android apps and others didn’t—we can only speculate it has something to do with chipset support, but it’s hard to say with certainty (especially since the reason can vary on a per-device basis).

The same thing later happened with Linux app support, but even fewer devices were going to get the feature at first. Linux support requires a specific kernel version and most Chromebooks at the time didn’t make the cut—and Google couldn’t easily update them, most likely due to closed-source drivers.

So, two excellent features were only available on a select few Chromebooks out of the gate. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however: on a long enough timeline, all Chrome OS devices should support both. Basically, all new Chromebooks support Android apps, and I have a feeling the same will be true for Linux apps.

But there’s still a problem, and it all revolves around Android apps.

Chrome OS Has an Android Fragmentation Problem

While all Chrome OS devices moving forward will support Android apps (or they should at the very least), the recent release of Chrome OS 73 stable shows that Chrome OS fragmentation is still an issue. Why? Because different Chrome OS devices are running different versions of Android. That means they also have a different set of available features.

For example, Chrome OS 73 brings Android app audio focus. That means when an Android app is playing audio, all other audio sources will be muted (like Chrome, for example). So if you’re listening to music in Chrome and an Android app sends a notification, the notification will take priority. But, this feature is only available on Chrome OS devices running Android Pie. It doesn’t work on Nougat or below.

That’s an issue because most Chrome OS devices are still running Nougat. Chrome OS 72 brought Pie to some devices, but not all—not even most. This is frustrating for current users and new users alike. It’s unclear why some devices got updated to Pie, and others didn’t; it’s also unclear how these updates will work in the future. And Google is pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing.

If you’re looking for a specific Android feature on Chrome OS, it’s pretty hit and miss because of the gap between versions. To make matters worse, there’s no clear timeline for Pie to hit more Chrome OS devices, so you can’t even look it up to find out when your device may see the update.

So, right now, it’s a crapshoot. At one point, this could’ve easily been dismissed as part of the wider rollout of Android app support on Chrome OS. But we’re approaching the two-year mark from when Android apps first starting hitting Chrome OS, which is long enough that these kinds of kinks should’ve been worked out.

At this point, Android support on Chrome OS is sort of a fragmented mess. The fact that it started slowly was troubling, but the feature gap between devices is now a real concern. Will current devices ever get support for Android Pie? Will future devices have the same issues? Will devices that currently support Pie get support for Android O?

The harsh reality is that there are no answers for any of those questions. Chrome OS has been fragmented since the launch of Android app support, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

And this time it’s up to Google alone to fix it. I hope for the sake of the future of Chrome OS that it actually happens. Feature parity is important, especially when an operating system is handled by a single vendor.

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