So the 'Year of Linux' never happened. When is it Chrome OS's turn?

Seeing that the Pixelbook costs $999, don't hold your breath

pixelbook
Google's upcoming, Chrome OS-running, wallet-emptying Pixelbook

The year of Linux on the desktop was a running joke. The concept of Linux being ready for the mainstream with users confidently running it on their desktops, sadly, never happened.

Some bravely pushed the idea: the latest being Canonical with a more macOS-like desktop, easier to configure and use than the standard Linux distro. It came with an app-store concept too.

But the public didn't bite and the year of the of the Linux desktop didn't happen. Linux has succeeded almost everywhere else – servers, devices, embedded – just not on the mass of desktops.

One of the players has been Google, with not one but two Linux operating systems in this mix, Android and Chrome OS.

Android, initially conceived as a mobile OS, is the more successful of the two – running on more than two billion mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.

It's also running on infotainment systems in cars, in ATMs, smartwatches, and has even been ported to run on laptops, desktops and multi-modal smartphones which become desktops.

Android now supports millions of applications, many of them being mobile-first apps by design, but with concessions made for users of larger devices. These concessions are important, as Google is integrating Android with Chrome OS in order to create hybrid PCs which it believes reflect the way we work in the modern world better than traditional applications.

Nice guys finish last

Chrome OS, the more straightforward desktop-oriented operating system, is neither as popular nor as ubiquitous – holding less than four per cent of the US desktop PC operating system market.

Most of Chrome OS's success is in notebooks and education, where it has 58 per cent of the K–12 market and performs a role as a cheap and affordable laptop with simple device management policies. It hasn't been easy to stake out even that small percentage, with Apple pushing its iPad prices down and Microsoft essentially creating two new Windows SKUs (Windows 8.1 with Bing, and more recently Windows 10 S) to take on Google in the education market. In the wider market, not so much.

It's not for want of trying. Unlike Linux, Chrome OS is readily available from reliable manufacturers like HP, Samsung, Acer and Lenovo, as well as sold in mainstream outlets like Currys PC World.

The threat certainly seemed real: Microsoft was alarmed enough at the prospect of low-priced options in the UK and Europe that it countered in 2014 with those Windows 8.1 Bing notebooks, giving PC OEMs the Windows OS licence at a heavily discounted rate. The threat, however, never materialised and Microsoft went on to kill its intended Chromebook-killing Bing machine.

It's difficult to pinpoint a single factor that's held back Chrome OS. In reality, it's probably a combination.

Android benefitted from being an early pioneer in a gold-rush market with no incumbent player to stop it. Chrome OS was working settled PC territory. That means not just persuading users to break their existing Windows or Mac mindset but also ramping up in the powerful PC channel market.

There was also the lack of a consistent push from Google.

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For mainstream PC users there are so few applications that it's difficult to justify using a Chrome OS device. In fact, it's hard to name more than a handful of popular apps or services that exist on the desktop. For the few that remain, they are either wholly web-apps like Google Inbox, or they were built in and based on web technologies like Slack, which runs on Electron.

This year, however, Google returned to the Chromebook fountain.

We now have an "enterprise" edition of Chrome OS. Features not available on regular Chrome OS include the business-friendly integration with Microsoft's ActiveDirectory, managed Chrome extensions, browser management and single sign-on. Chrome Enterprise is for businesses "not yet ready for a cloud only solution" and who want to manage Chrome OS with their existing on-prem identity and management system. Users can employ their corporate credentials to authenticate across devices using Google Play – the formerly Android-only store.

A grand? For a Chrome OS machine?

In a bold departure from the Chrome OS price-and-device playbook, Google has now announced Pixelbook. Not just the first hybrid PC, or what the firm touts as a 4-in-1 Laptop, it also starts at £999. So much for battle of the cheap laptops. Google justifies the Pixelbook price on the basis of "beautiful" and functional multi-modal hardware and the ability to use the Pixelbook as tablet or a laptop, or in stand and tent modes.

Google hopes those $200 Chromebooks serve as a gateway drug. That way, when current Chromebook-toting high schoolers begin picking out laptops for college, Chromebooks remain in the conversation as sleek, powerful fashion symbols. It mirrors the Apple MacBook Air that for years was the quintessential collegiate laptop and now looks equally at home in any boardroom meeting.

The Pixelbook will launch during the crucial back-to-university shopping season and in the run up to what has historically been PC makers' and retailers' most promising business period: Christmas.

Pixelbook is very likely the most important Chromebook this year. It was this year after all that Chrome OS began moving up in the market with devices like Samsung's Chromebook Pro, Plus and the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA. Previously, only Google offered a high-end Chromebook for users, albeit one not primed for the mass market. This is Google's first mass-market push, and it aims to address the pain points users face with Chromebooks.

There will be criticisms aimed at this device, of course: who would want to spend $1,000 on a Chromebook when you can get a "proper" PC for cheaper? It is important to note that devices like the Galaxy Note 8, iPhone X, iPad Pro and Surface Laptop will cost around $1,000, and all ship with more or less the same conceit as Google's Chromebook – hassle-free computing with premium hardware. If anyone can prove that Chrome OS is worth more than $150 a pop, it's Google with the Pixelbook.

Perhaps it's OK that the year of the Linux desktop won't come after all. Linux is unpolished, raw and difficult. Whereas Google's operating systems are far more polished and consumer ready.

The relatively poor take-up of Chrome OS would seem to confer the ongoing failure of the Linux desktop story transferred to notebook.

Google now seems to be looking to break out of the Chromebook's education niche with a version suited to the serious needs of corporate users and their IT administrators. We have a machine that abandons the Chromebook heritage of budget-friendly prices that were supposed to help it achieve a mass-market breakout.

Whether Chrome Enterprise and Pixelbook turn out to be ticks in Google's on-then-off-again Chrome OS pushes, and what impact they'll have on market share, remains to be seen. ®

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