Chrome OS

Why Android and Chrome OS's next step could be colossal

After years of tantalizing teases, Google's two primary platforms may finally be ready to take their relationship to the next level.

Android, Chrome OS
Google/JR Raphael

Chrome OS

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For years now, we've been hearing — and seeing — how Chrome OS and Android are coming together.

The saga has stretched on since the dawn of time — or, uh, at least since about 2015, when the Chromebooks-are-doomed chorus started confidently crooning about the inevitable pending "merger" of Chrome OS and Android. At the same time, of course, those of us who were watching things closely anticipated a far more nuanced alignment of the platforms — nothing quite as dramatic as an only-one-can-survive duel, admittedly, but a far more realistic scenario and one we'd been seeing take shape for some time.

And what ended up happening? Well, I'll tell ya, you rhetorical-question-adoring alpaca: The reality of that alignment became increasingly clear over time, with Google slowly but surely bringing more Android-like elements into Chrome OS (and even occasionally bringing Chrome-OS-inspired touches into Android). Month by month, year by year, we've watched the two platforms become more consistent, more complementary, and more connected.

But that last part — the "connected" part — has always fallen frustratingly short of its potential. Chromebooks and Android phones certainly seem to go together these days, and moving from one to the other is a pleasingly familiar experience. But while Google's come a long way with aligning the platforms' interfaces, features, and even app selections, the notion of Chromebooks and Android phones working "better together" has been more marketing fluff than meaningful benefit — at least, up until now.

An under-development section in Google's open-source Chrome OS code suggests a totally new system called Phone Hub is currently in the works for Chromebooks. Phone Hub, you say? Yes, Phone Hub! As initially observed by the eagle-eyed sleuths at 9to5Google, the feature will apparently "provide a [user interface] for users to view information about their Android phone and perform phone-side actions within Chrome OS."

Intriguing, no?

The code goes on to explain that the Hub will include at least three new options: "Phone Hub Notifications," "Phone Hub Notifications Badge," and "Phone Hub Task Continuation."

Well, tickle me tootsies and call me Mildred: That's more or less exactly what the Android-Chrome-OS marriage has been lacking all this time. And if any of it sounds familiar, by golly, it should: It's quite similar, at least on the surface, to the Continuity system Apple provides for its various iDevices. And it's also reminiscent of the work Microsoft is doing with its Windows-to-Android "Your Phone" setup — though that arrangement is far less native and seamless, especially on the Android side, and some of its most useful features are annoyingly limited only to recent Samsung flagships (three sarcastic cheers for customer-hurting corporate partnerships!).

Google, in contrast, has both the motivation and the means to make the Android-Chromebook connection universally powerful. And while the idea of notification syncing being brought into the equation is a nice, if overdue, notion, it's the "Task Continuation" concept that's most intriguing of all.

We've seen some teases of that sort of thing over time, like when Google added suggested article links into the Chrome OS app drawer a while back — but all those do is give you a quick way to pull pages you'd had open on your Android phone. You don't really pick up where you left off in any meaningful way.

Similarly, this time last year, we started hearing about an effort to bring a shared clipboard of sorts into Android and Chrome OS devices where the same account is involved. But so far, all we've seen is a manual text-sharing setup, which is nice and handy and all but not quite the true "universal clipboard" many of us were hoping to have. (And it's also a purely Chrome-driven feature, which means it works between Android and any other device with Chrome installed — not only a Chromebook. That certainly doesn't take anything away from it, practically speaking, but it does make it seem like less of an Android-Chrome-OS connection, specifically.)

At this point, the main extent of Android phones and Chromebooks acting connected and working together resides within a single section of the Chrome OS settings. It's called "Connected devices," and it was added into the mix in 2018. The section has three basic options: pairing your Android phone with your Chromebook and empowering it to keep the Chromebook unlocked when it's nearby, allowing your phone to share its data connection with the Chromebook in a somewhat automated sense, and enabling web-based access to your text messages on the Chromebook via the Google Messages app.

Chrome OS-Android Connected Devices JR

Not bad, by any stretch — but, well, the first two options have been available on Chrome OS for ages, and the third is something that's actually available on any computer, regardless of the operating system. For all the attention this section received upon its arrival, it's mostly just a repositioning and rebranding of a few long-available, relatively basic functions. The options themselves have remained stagnant for a long time.

Bringing a true task continuation feature into the mix would shake things up considerably. If it does what it sounds like and lets you truly pick up where you left off and pass off tasks from one device to another — in a way that'd let you move from your laptop to your phone and back almost seamlessly — well, that'd clearly bring a huge productivity advantage to anyone who uses an Android phone and a Chromebook together. It'd be a big win for us as users, obviously, and also a big win for Google as it works to emphasize the importance of the "Google ecosystem" and the benefit of using its products across different domains.

And as Google increasingly works to bring Chromebooks into the enterprise while Microsoft simultaneously revs up its own Windows-centric Android ecosystem, that could be an incredibly timely form of platform-connecting value to pitch. Think of all the Android-using businesses that might suddenly be inspired to add Chromebooks into their arsenals in order to create a more complete, convenient, and efficient experience.

Even beyond just the enterprise, I mean, really: Who among us doesn't work across different device forms nowadays — and who among us wouldn't want the transition from one device to the next to be more seamless and friction-free? Microsoft is running circles around Google in this area right now, despite the fact that Google's the only company (whose name doesn't rhyme with Schmapple) that owns and controls a widely adopted mobile operating system and desktop platform.

For now, all we can do is wait and see what happens as this feature makes its way from early development onward. But it certainly looks like it has the potential to be an important missing piece of the puzzle — one that could finish what Google started and bring Chromebooks and Android phones together in a way that's long been promised but yet to be provided.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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