Next week in Wednesday, Google will host an event where they will announce a bunch of new hardware products under the Pixel brand and of course, most of the products have already been leaked. One of these devices is supposed to be a follow-up to the Chromebook Pixel laptop-line that was first released in 2013 (with another model introduced in 2015). It is expected that Google’s new laptop will be rebranded to Pixelbook.
I’ll not focus on the Google Pixel phones. I am sure they will be the Android devices to beat for other Android device manufacturers for at least a year, especially in terms of camera quality and software performance. The Pixel phones from last year seem to be holding up quite well in both regards. I’ll be getting the Pixel XL in Just Black.
Based on my history of owning and using Google hardware, I am very sceptical that releasing a Pixel-branded Chromebook is a wise choice right now.
Google is currently in the middle of several transitions: They are starting to take the hardware game more seriously, they’re limiting access to certain Google services to their own hardware (at least for a few months) and their entire operating system strategy seems to somewhere in between relying on Android for phones, playing around with Android on Chrome OS for laptops/convertibles while openly developing a complete new operating system named Fuchsia.
The First Chromebook Pixel
The 1st Chromebook Pixel was released in 2013 and it featured beautiful, sturdy hardware that was limited to just running Chrome OS and thus, a limited amount of webapps. Its display had severe ghosting issues while battery runtime was severely harmed by the inefficient i5-processor it shipped with, which by itself was already a generation behind when the device was released. Still, I wanted it and I bought one, which I then sold after a couple of months, just to buy another 2 years later.
While most reviews cheered the production quality of Google’s first own piece of hardware, the limitations of Chrome OS meant that the amount of customers who lined up to purchase a 1000$ laptop driven by a full-blown browser OS, was… limited, to say the least.
Chrome OS, meet Android
Google of course noticed it already had an existing ecosystem of apps and developers: Android. And thus it was decided that Chrome OS shouldn’t be limited to webapps anymore.
The first attempt at making Chrome OS more useful by adding support for Android apps was without much success: With the introduction of the Android Runtime for Chrome (ARC) in 2014, Google promised to bring Android apps to Chrome OS. All app-developers had to do was to add ARC-support to their apps. But almost none ever did. The idea was shelved after a few months.
A beta Chrome-Extension was able to create Chrome OS-compatible apps from Android packages was more of a hack and did not work very well. Most apps didn’t start and the few that did were completely unaware of the underlying Chrome Operating System, with no integration whatsoever. Their performance was mostly abysmal. One also had to hunt down individual Android Application packages (so called APKs). Android apps also often rely on Google Play Services, which didn’t run on Chrome OS as well.
The 2nd generation Chromebook Pixel released in 2015 was a hardware upgrade with some minor improvements to the keyboard that shipped in two versions, featuring more efficient i5/i7 processors and 8/16GB memory. I know of no widespread hardware issues, but the limitations of Chrome OS were still an issue when it was released. It was the first device to ship with USB Type C though.
Both Chromebook Pixel-releases were limited to US and UK markets and I would be surprised if Google managed to sell more than about a hundred thousand devices combined.
The Pixel C-Detour
Next came the Pixel C, a convertible laptop/tablet-hybrid that was released at the end of 2015. I gave my Nexus 9 to my friend nomaster because I really wanted to have the Pixel C. It was the first Android device under the Pixel umbrella and while it was marketed as a productivity device, it didn’t support multitasking for another 9 months. It was originally intended to be a Chrome OS/Android hybrid device that could dual-boot both platforms and the pivot to only booting Android happened rather late in its development lifecycle. And boy with it noticeable.
It had major software issues upon release, most likely in part because of the rushed move to run Android. WiFi performance wasn’t on par with other devices of that year, the magnetic keyboard had a spotty Bluetooth connection and even to this day, hitting the space key sometimes leads to typing two spaces instead of one. These issues might even hint at hardware issues that never got fully resolved with software.
After updating to Android 7.0 some Pixel C owners had to RMA their devices because of weird rebooting issues. There’s still an unresolved issue with some users having had to factory-reset their devices because it no longer accepted the PIN/passphrase, despite it being the correct one.
I guess I was lucky that my device never had any these issues, but enough customers will probably think twice before purchasing another Google laptop or tablet for the time being.
Ship what you promise
Google tends to announce functionality that never ships, like the promised support for Type C video-output that was abandoned in July 2017. Before Google Wifi, there was OnHub and while it was just being marketed as a WiFi Access Point, it also featured support for IoT-protocols and various competing standards that were supposed to turn it into a fully functioning smartphone hub. This also never materialized. (Except for support for Philips Hue lamps, which still exists). It was most likely abandoned to focus on Google Home because of the success of Amazon’s Echo.
The Road To Nowhere: Andromeda
A few days before the announcement of the first Pixel phones last year, AndroidPolice spread word of a device named ‘bison’ that closely resembled the rumored specs of the upcoming Pixelbook device. Even the release date of Q3 2017 was somewhat accurate. What made the report especially interesting though, was the mention of it running Andromeda instead of either Android or Chrome OS. Andromeda has since been shelved and it was just another attempt at bringing Android and Chrome OS closer together. Andromeda was probably the project that the Wallstreet Journal hinted at in 2015 (Note: the post has since been paywalled), but that is mere speculation on my part, though very likely, because Andromeda was supposed to assimilate Chrome OS into Android instead of the other way around.
Since development on Andromeda was halted, the bison device seems to have been killed off as well, replaced by eve, a board running Chrome OS that first showed up in Google’s version control system in october of 2016. That gave Google about a year to fine-tune the hardware to Chrome OS, without having to reintegrate any leftovers from the Andromeda development cycle. At least it won’t be another Pixel C again.
Android on Chrome OS: The Sequel
Truly native support for Android apps on Chrome OS was first announced in Q2 of 2016 and almost 18 months later, the Play Store is still in beta. You have to enroll your Chromebook to the beta release track to be able to install Android apps, if the device is supported at all.
According to my experience with Android apps on a Samsung Chromebook Plus and an Acer Chromebook R13, I’m not confident that Android on Chrome OS will be stable and reliable enough to be widely announced in a major new producitivy product.
Whatever it is, it might not be enough
Google still seems to lack to focus to compete with Apple in terms of combining hardware and software to create products that appeal to lots of customers. I’m expecting that we’ll be seing a few more mistakes before the Pixel laptop sales will make an appearance in any market share graph, if ever.
Chromebooks in 2017 are still no replacement for Macbooks and Windows laptops for most, Android on tablets is a dead end and Android on Chrome OS still feels like a compromise. There’s hope that Google is working on bringing support for productivity apps on Chrome OS through virtualization with Chrome OS Virtual Machine, though I’m not expecting that such a feature will be targeted to consumers.
I think from October 4th onwards we’ll be able to witness how serious they are about their hardware strategy. While not fully convinced, I’m hoping that they’ll trigger enough curiosity for me to buy the Pixelbook as well, if Google is willing to officially sell it in Germany.