Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Chrome OS Can Learn From The Other Google OS

Much has been said about Google's two operating systems, Android and Chrome OS. Why didn't Google use Android for Chromebook devices? Will the two merge at some point? Isn't Google competing against itself here?  My own opinion on the matter? Awesome. Google has two operating systems and they both have their own philosophy and usefulness. I also find it funny that no one seems to mention that Microsoft and Apple are also effectively maintaining two operating systems each (Windows and Windows Phone, OS X and iOS). But this article isn't about that, it's about what Chrome OS can learn from Android. No one can argue that Android hasn't been a wild success for Google and if they want Chrome OS to take off also, it's worth looking at what Android got right. None of these features are revolutionary but they are the little things that make Android unique and contribute to it's success.

Android does location based search very well. Simply long pressing the search button and saying "Navigate to a pharmacy" and I can be headed to the closest CVS in seconds flat. Many of Android's core apps and most popular 3rd party apps make use of the user's location in some way. Chrome OS needs to play catchup on location. Despite having GPS hardware, Chromebooks aren't yet using it to get an exact geolocation, geolocation still relies on less accurate data like your IP address and nearby WiFi APs. Google has a major advantage in the notebook market they've yet to capitalize on with Chromebooks and location. Windows PC and Mac developers generally can't count on location data when writing programs because such a low percentage of PCs and Macs have GPS hardware today. If Google offered full GPS support in Chrome OS, it could be a major drawing feature for 3rd party developers to target their web apps and extensions towards Chromebooks.

Connectivity Monitoring
Gingerbread gave Android a very smart way of indicating Internet connectivity that I'd love to see Chrome OS clone (don't worry guys, the Android team isn't likely to sue you). Signal strength doesn't always mean that you have a good Internet connection. So the Android WiFi and 3G icons turn green when they have a good connection and are able to talk to Google servers. Once you know it's there, it's an easy way to be sure you're connected and web sites should work. Chromebooks need to have a simple visual indicator that they have good, working Internet connectivity. Feel free to make it blue if Android green doesn't work for the Chrome team.

Battery Monitoring
Android devices and Chromebooks are both all about mobility. Nothing kills your mobility faster than a dead battery though. Since Android 1.6 (Donut) it's been possible to see what apps and hardware are making the most use of your battery. This allows you to adjust your use habits when you need to squeeze a few more hours out of your device.

It'd be great to see Chromebooks offer similar details about what's eating your battery. Is YouTube chewing away your watts decoding your video or is it that you have your display brightness set to high? Is the Flash plugin really the battery hog Apple says it is? How power efficient is that 3G modem? A visual display of what hardware, tabs and sites are draining your battery would be an excellent addition for Chromebooks.

Multi-Touch Gestures
Sure a touchscreen Chromebook would be nice but Chrome OS can take advantage of multi-touch functionality right now with that Synaptics trackpad. Chromebooks do media composition really well with a full physical keyboard and touchpad but they could do media consumption nearly as well as a phone or tablet with added gesture support. I'd like to see gestures to go back and forth on web pages, go fullscreen, even close a tab. Obviously, these would be optional and disabled by default so as not to confuse new users. Not everyone will use multi-touch but the power users will certainly appreciate the uhh... gesture.

A Little Bit of Flash
No, I'm not talking about the Adobe product. I'm talking about just a bit of sparkle and polish here and there. Google has worked hard to make Android look slick and feel nice without slowing down performance. The app list fades in when you open it and apps slide along a giant virtual cube. Pressing the Home button fades your app out and your Home screen in. Widgets add all sorts of possibilities. Locking the display gives you an analog TV-style off animation. Bringing similar polish to Chrome OS could mean animations for opening, switching and closing tabs, logging in and out and locking the machine. Let's be clear here: I'm not willing to sacrifice one ounce of performance to see these animations added (why yes, I am being demanding and unreasonable here). It's these little, well planned and well thought out additions that add to the user experience in a way that's difficult to quantify but very real when it comes to how a user feels about their device. With newer Chrome OS builds, we've seen some work on adding polish but it's one of those development items that's never really done, keep at it guys.

I like to imagine the Chrome OS team sitting down to lunch with the Android team every now and then and talking about UI design, future possibilities and a good philosophical debate about OS design. There's plenty of room for personal choice and a little friendly team competition, along with the ability to realize someone else is doing it better than you, is very healthy. So I've said my piece, what Android features do you want to see added to Chrome OS or maybe the other way around?


  1. From what I can tell about Android, my biggest wish would be to enjoy improved performance on my chromebook. I'm on a Cr-48, so my frustration could arise from the extra-special specs it came with . . . On the other hand, I've heard some complaint about commercial chromebooks struggling with performance, as well. From what I can tell, the performance issues often correlate with Flash. Yet, with Pandora switching to HTML5, along with YouTube (at least step by step -- I've run into a handful, recently), I wonder to what extent and how much longer Flash will continue to bog down chromebooks.

  2. Of the three available Chromebooks, only the pilot Cr-48 has built-in GPS.