We weren’t there in the meetings where Chromebooks were green-lit, but we can imagine they started as a bit of an experiment. The first ones were around $400, made of plastic, and ran nothing except the Chrome browser. With these limitations in place, Chromebooks began to find an audience. Owners realized they didn’t need to spend over a thousand dollars to write emails and watch Netflix – and they loved it.
Now, six years later, Google has introduced the Pixelbook. It’s a beautiful 2-in-1 that seems confused about why it exists. On the outside, it’s a product that screams “MacBook competitor,” accompanied by a $1,000 price point and snazzy design pulled from the Pixel smartphones.
The Pixelbook isn’t targeting the same audience other Chromebooks are. Like Apple and Microsoft, Google wants people to buy the Pixelbook not just because they need a computer, but because they want a Google product. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that same mindset led to the iPhone and the Surface Pro, devices that altered the future of computing.
Unfortunately, the Pixelbook is not as revolutionary.
The messy mash-up
Before the Pixelbook’s announcement, we were sure the next laptop made by Google would integrate Android and Chrome OS. The company had already added access to the Google Play Store to many Chromebooks, so it seems a natural evolution. After the success of the Pixel smartphones, we thought Google’s next device would be a mainstream 2-in-1 laptop that everyone would want. Google was even rumored to be developing a new operating system to handle the form factor of the Pixelbook.
However, it only takes a few minutes of using the Pixelbook to realize the problem inherent in its existence. With the Pixelbook, Google has stitched Android and Chrome OS together with scissors, glue, and tape, instead of weaving them together as a single fabric. Running Android apps on the Pixelbook feels akin to running an illegal NES ROM in an emulator. Some of the apps are full of glitches and sizing issues, some of which are leftovers from the Android tablet days. You need only look down at your taskbar and see duplicates of the same app — one from the Play Store, and one from the Chrome Web Store — to see the problem.
Google Assistant and the Pixelbook Pen make the problem worse, not better. They highlight the messy melding of the two operating systems, and make the user experience downright confusing. It’s hard to predict what’ll happen when you touch the screen with the Pen, or summon Google Assistant. The response can depend on what you’re using, and doesn’t inspire the confidence. The Chrome browser doesn’t work well with the pen, but Android apps usually do. With Assistant, though, it’s Android apps that see the cold shoulder, while the Pen is often trouble-free. When a manufacturer makes both the hardware and the software, it’s fair to expect a certain amount of integration – and that’s what the Pixelbook lacks.
Google, pick a direction – and stick with it
Rumor have circulated about a new Google operating system, code-named Andromeda, that’s meant to combine Android and Chrome OS together. It was said to be scheduled for release in 2017. It’s not hard to imagine Google preparing Andromeda to be released with the Pixelbook, only to squash it altogether, as reports indicated earlier this summer.
Now, the rumors have changed, and suggest Google’s working on a new operating system known internally as Fuchsia. Nothing is official yet, but we do know it ditches the Linux-microkernel that Chrome OS is based on in favor of a new, homebrewed microkernel called Magenta. According to Google documentation, Magenta is made for “modern phones and modern personal computers with fast processors, non-trivial amounts of RAM, with arbitrary peripherals doing open-ended computation.”
Whatever Fuchsia’s capabilities, Google must decide the type of company it wants to be. If it wants to continue as the open-source, affordable alternative to Apple and Microsoft, it should stop trying to sell $1,000 Chromebooks. If it wants to be a serious competitor in the laptop and 2-in-1 space, it’s time for the company to build a decisive, fully-baked solution to the awkward gap between Android and Chrome OS.
Until then, the Pixelbook – and all other premium Chromebooks – will feel like prototypes shoved out the door too soon.